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New exhibit opens at Ramat Gan museum, spanning century of Israeli art

Nearly two years after the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art was summarily closed following a firestorm over an artwork deemed defamatory against the ultra-Orthodox, the contemporary art institution  is now launching a headlining exhibit, with some 240 historical Israeli artworks to mark Israel’s 75th, all owned by Phoenix Holdings, Israel’s largest insurance company.

The collection is one of the country’s largest and is central to Israel’s very DNA, said curator Roni Cohen-Binyamini.

“It doesn’t just include the masters, telling the history of Israeli art,” said Cohen-Binyamini. “It includes the progression of creations of each one of these artists. It’s a collection built as a museum exhibit.”

The contemporary art museum is hoping to widely capture the public’s attention with “B’Eretz Ahavati” (“In the Land of My Love”), opening September 4 through next summer.

As an exhibit, it’s an ode to many of Israel’s best artists, with artworks by Reuven Rubin, Nachum Gutman, Joseph Zaritsky, Yitzhak Danziger, Lea Nickel, Moshe Gershuny, Aviva Uri, Israel Hershberg, Avigdor Arikha and many others.

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The Phoenix collection hasn’t been shown like this since 2006, said Cohen-Binyamini, although some pieces have been loaned and exhibited as part of other shows.

At the opening of ‘In the Land of My Love’ on September 3 at the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“We’ve been holding this for many years,” said Phoenix CEO Eyal Ben Simon, who was also in attendance at Sunday’s launch. “This collection has seen a lot of storage, but not a lot of light.”

Phoenix was founded by the late David Hackmey in 1949, and under the leadership of his son, Joseph Hackmey, began purchasing works of art in the 1980s. The collection now includes works from the middle of the 19th century to the present day, with each decade represented by selected works from the top artists of the era.

When Phoenix was looking to sell some of its artworks in 2010, Lucien Krief’s auction house Matsart evaluated it at $18 million, while Sotheby’s said it was worth $12 million.

Spread over the three floors of the museum, curator Cohen-Binyamini has divided the artworks — choosing some 240 out of 1,400 — into the topics of Place, Body of Work and What’s New at Home, using those separate lenses as a way of viewing the Israeli zeitgeist of the last century.

“I wanted to find themes in the collection that would access the wider public because it’s an elitist collection,” she said.

At the opening of ‘In the Land of My Love’ on September 3 at the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

She begins with Place on the first floor, with works telling the story of Zionism and Israel as a utopian settlement, including Moshe Gershuni’s “18 Cyclamens” leading the works and Michael Gross’s “Tractor in the Field II” alongside Sionah Tagger’s Ein Kerem series, several Reuven Rubins, Yitzhak Danziger’s 3D “Water Conduit” and many others.

The second floor, Body of Work, opens with Danziger’s famed pair of bronze “Sheep of the Negev,” as a start for looking at the body as a medium, moving from the weak shtetl Jew to “the Judaism of musculature,” said Cohen-Binyamini, referring to the archetypal Israeli soldier and farmer.

Sigalit Landau’s ‘Swimmer and Wall’ is part of ‘In the Land of My Love’ which opened September 3 at the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

A portion of that section also views how war and conflict have wreaked havoc on Israeli society, with the typically darker works of Uri Lifschitz and Igal Tumarkin.

There’s also Adi Ness’s famed photograph “The Last Supper” and Sigalit Landau’s “Swimmer and Wall,” with a miniature swimmer crashing into the wall — and blood, or red paint, splattering everywhere.

The third floor is smaller and more intimate, making sense as the space for viewing what happens internally in the Israeli hearth and home, with classic Arikha paintings of kitchen implements, Landau’s set of stacked wooden doors and Eli Petel’s “Humus” plate that took two years to dry.

“This is the kind of curatorial opportunity that doesn’t come along all the time,” said Cohen-Binyamini, noting that she wanted to make the exhibit current, not historical or academic, highlighting the connections between the artists, styles and themes.

At Sunday’s launch, Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen said he is “not an expert in art, but had a hunch,” the Phoenix exhibit would work in the newly reopened museum.

The exhibit offers “a few hours of Israeliness,” said Shama-Hacohen, “in this building that we invested so much in.”

The exterior of the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art which reopened in 2022 after an extensive renovation, then closed for a year over a disagreement regarding a piece of art and reopened in 2023 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Shama-Hacohen was referring to a costly renovation undertaken in an original structure that was built in 1936 as a floor tile factory, located at the intersection of two historic roads in Ramat Gan.

The museum reopened after its renovation in 2022 with “The Institution,” themed on political works. But the museum didn’t remain open for long.

That first exhibit included artist David Reeb’s painting showing two images of an ultra-Orthodox man praying at the Western Wall; one with the term“Jerusalem of gold,” the other with the words “Jerusalem of shit.”

Screenshot of David Reeb’s controversial painting that brought about the temporary closure of the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art in January 2022 (Courtesy Times of Israel)

Shama-Hacohen polled Ramat Gan residents on Facebook, asking them what to do about the painting. He later asked the museum to remove the painting.

In response, 43 other exhibiting artists first covered their artworks with black cloths and then asked to remove their works from the museum.

What ensued was a year of intensive negotiations between the city of Ramat Gan, artists and the Union of Art Curators, alongside the temporary closure of the museum and the resignation of the head curator, Svetlana Reingold.

“We went through a process, a maturation about how to deal with this,” said deputy mayor Roy Barzilai, who chairs the museum’s management committee, “and something like this won’t happen again because of the understanding that it damaged everyone who was involved.”

“It’s all about freedom of expression,” said Barzilai, pointing at one of the paintings hanging on the wall, “and that always has to be protected.”

“In the Land of My Love,” September 4 through summer 2024, Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art.