TEL AVIV – There is hardly any movement in the entry of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The vacant hall allows a rare opportunity to view the huge, multi-media Yaacov Agam work that dominates the museum’s lobby unobstructed, from every angle.
Sound, from the chatter of children’s voices to the even tones of a doyenne leading a touring group, is absent. Even the quiet undertone of the ubiquitous Israeli cell phone conversations is missing. At the entry door, a mother learns that she has to change her kids’ schedule—on this quiet Sunday morning, the museum is not receiving visitors.
Beyond the lobby, behind the exhibition halls and galleries, the work of art continues. JNS.org recently spoke with Shuli Kislev, senior deputy director of the museum and project manager of the museum’s new wing, the Herta and Paul Amir Building.
The formal opening of the Amir building in late 2011 marked the conclusion of an unprecedented annum marked by loss, change and accomplishment. The low point was the death of the museum’s longtime director, Professor Mordechai (Moti) Omer. At the same time, a new era began through the completion of the new $50 million building and the appointment of Director Susan Landau, former chief curator of the Israel Museum.
Now, the expanded museum continues to gain admiration throughout the international art community, and its exhibits have attracted visitors from around the globe.
“Israeli art has attained the national venue it has long deserved,” Kislev told JNS.org.
Israel’s “principal institution of modern and contemporary art” opened its nearly 200,000 square-foot-addition in September 2011. The design, by Boston-based architect Preston Scott Cohen, was selected from almost 100 submissions in an international competition. The freestanding, white concrete, multi-angled structure glistens in the light of the Tel Aviv sun. Its massive galleries, dedicated to the display of the museum’s premier collection of Israeli art, are a series of large, white, rectangular spaces constructed around a central, 87-foot-high atrium called the “Light Fall.” The design “provides surprising, continually unfolding, vertical circulation through all the floors,” Kislev explained.
“The Light Fall connects the galleries and allows natural light to reach into every gallery of the building,” she said.
The Amir building is “dedicated to the heritage of Israeli art, presented in all its richness and variety,” said Kislev. The building was the vision of the late Omer, who recognized the need for additional gallery space.
“We had an almost unheard of store of the best Israeli art collections—stuck in the basement—exhibit space was never available,” Kislev said. “The museum can now present what Israeli art is all about, showing its full history. Having such space was the idea beyond the expansion.” Some 250 of these works, dating from 1906 to the present, were part of the inaugural exhibit.
From concept to concrete, the new building took almost 15 years to complete. Kislev explained the process.
“In 2003, following a program of serious thinking about the museum needs—including facilities like auditoriums and classrooms—we held two architectural competitions,” she said. “The design was chosen via a two stage, international competition. During the first segment, four Israeli architects were chosen from among 70 submissions. Two made second cut, together with three from abroad.”
Preston Scott Cohen’s winning design was developed with Israeli architect Amit Nemlich. The team spent years working together, both in Israel and in Boston.
The museum, a linchpin in Tel Aviv’s cultural center, is situated on a triangular plot. The need to create large, rectangular galleries presented a significant architectural design challenge.
“Contemporary curators consider white rectangles the best design for display of both sculpture and painting,” Kislev said. “From the beginning, we kept that basic idea. It was important to maintain the Light Fall through all the galleries, so we started from the middle.”
In the 10 years between contest and completion for the Tel Aviv museum, vast changes in technology occurred. Artists now have interactive devices such as YouTube and other video platforms.
“They do what they did before, in more inviting workshops,” Kislev said.
As a city institution, the museum received about one-third of the construction costs from the municipality of Tel Aviv, while the Amir family provided significant funds.
“Israelis invested heavily in the new museum structure,” Kislev said, explaining that this level of participation marked a significant change in Israel-based philanthropy.
“Israelis are starting to give money to art and culture,” she said. “Although we still need to go abroad, we can absolutely say people in Israel thought it important to give money to support the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.”
Kislev had special praise for Tel Aviv’s Mayor, Ron Huldai.
“He understands that culture is an integral part of Tel Aviv,” she said.
JNS.org asked Kislev what her wish for the museum’s future would be. With no hesitation, she responded that the museum should have “the resources to fulfill our dreams.”
“Completing this project was hard work,” Kislev said. “I was privileged to be part of the beginning of a new era for the museum. We’ve doubled our space—and doubled our exhibitions. We are in position to enable the curators to fulfill their visions. What we did not double is our staff. We are working very hard, doing the most we can. You can see the results on the walls.”