Travel Guide: Summer Art Highlights in Israel
By Rachel Kubrick
This summer I had the opportunity to intern and live in Israel for two months. Having already explored many of the most popular tourist sites in Israel (Masada, the Dead Sea, the Western Wall, and many, many hikes) on family trips and organized tours, I was ready to see what else Israel had to offer. I soon realized that most of the places that myself and other tourists frequent there have something in common: they have little to do with what the contemporary State of Israel has to offer. Unsurprisingly, it seems that tourism in Israel is preoccupied with the same thing that the geopolitical side of the country is obsessed with: the land, the history, the religion. These items are what make this tiny country so controversial.
I wanted to get a more complex vision of Israel, a modern state with a largely secular population, thriving from growing technology and business. To get a more vivid glimpse into the soul of any contemporary society, one only has to look to its contemporary art. Fortunately, Israelis have created an exciting and active contemporary art scene. Given that Israel has the most museums per capita in the world, it’s about time that tourists take a look at what Israelis are up to today, rather than just sticking to the sites of the past. Here are some places to check out for interesting art next time you’re in the Holy Land.
1. The Israel Museum
The Israel Museum, situated in Jerusalem, is Israel’s largest and most popular museum. Fittingly, it offers the best of both worlds with expansive archaeological and modern collections, as well as rotating contemporary exhibitions. Imagine a smaller version of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It even has a fashion exhibit, reminiscent of the Met’s yearly Costume Institute shows, surveying modern Israeli fashion. This show, entitled Fashion Statements: Decoding Israeli Dress, will be open until April 2019. The Israel Museum also brings in major names from the international art world, notably Ai Weiwei who did a show there ending this past March with some outdoor sculptures still on display. For me, the most exciting parts of this museum were exhibits unique to Israel and its Judaism, including the famous Dead Sea Scrolls and a huge model of ancient Jerusalem. Make sure to check out the Judaica galleries, featuring beautiful objects from Jews all over the world. The Synagogue Route in particular, with reconstructed synagogues from 16th-18th century Italy, Germany, India, and Suriname, is truly unique.
2. Tel Aviv Museum of Art
Tel Aviv has far more to offer than incredible beaches and nightclubs, such as the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. I was surprised by how many great paintings from major names in Western modern art there were here, including Picasso, van Gogh, Pollock, Lichtenstein, Rothko, Kandinsky, Chagall, Klimt, and more. The modern galleries also feature many beautiful paintings by lesser known Jewish artists. Their Israeli Art Galleries are particularly exciting, displaying a survey of modern and contemporary art in Israel. I was taken aback by the gallery’s showcase of fascinating styles and techniques, finding an entire facet of art history I never knew existed. Later, I learned the possible reason for my ignorance of Israeli art; the cultural boycott on Israel protesting the Israeli Occupation in the West Bank has made it difficult for Israeli artists (many of whom are typically against the Occupation) to show work outside the country. Therefore, if you are coming to Israel interested in seeing old favorites, as well as artists that you often can’t find anywhere else, don’t miss the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
3. Art Museums in the Tel Aviv Metropolitan Area
Just outside of Tel Aviv, there are many smaller cities with their own unique art scenes and museums. If you’re interested in getting a bit more off the beaten path, there is much to see in these areas, where you’re bound to feel more like a local than a tourist. My personal favorite of these smaller museums is the Museums of Bat Yam, easily accessible by a twenty minute bus ride from the center of Tel Aviv. I may be a bit biased as I spent my summer interning here, but this is truly a hidden gem. With a rotunda reminiscent of a mini Guggenheim and a leadership of dedicated women, this small contemporary art museum has a ton of potential. In the coming months and years, this museum, MoBY for short, has so much planned, including opening two new buildings - the former home of Yiddish writer Sholem Asch and an education building with gallery space. Other popular and well regarded museums outside of Tel Aviv include the Design Museum Holon, Petach Tikva Museum of Art, Herzliya Museum, Ashdod Art Museum, and the Israeli Center for Digital Art in Holon.
4. Gallery Hopping in Tel Aviv
Wondering why so many of the places on this list are in the Tel Aviv area? That’s due to the city’s status as an international metropolis teeming with startups and a liberal, cosmopolitan culture. Tel Aviv’s creative climate has made it the center of the Israeli art scene, evidenced by the city’s high concentration of galleries. Spend a morning or afternoon gallery hopping to get a sneak peak into this aspect of modern Israeli society. You can use Rothschild Boulevard as your home base, a major street in central Tel Aviv filled with restaurants, bars, bike riders, as well as the location of Independence Hall. From there check out revered galleries in walking distance, such as Noga Gallery and Braverman Gallery. You can even go to Israel’s most well renowned gallery, Sommer Contemporary Art, right on Rothschild. The Center for Contemporary Art, also close by, is another important institution in the Tel Aviv art scene.
5. University Shows
Check out one of Israel’s many prestigious universities and colleges to see what young Israeli artists are creating. I had the privilege of attending two BFA shows at the University of Haifa and Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. The University of Haifa, in Israel’s major northern city, is known for its diverse student body which has the highest proportion of Arab students in Israel. With work primarily by Israeli Arab students, this show exposed me to crucial perspectives from a part of Israel’s population. Bezalel, located in Jerusalem, is Israel’s most esteemed art school, and the BFA show made that clear. It was the most expansive student show I had ever seen with incredible production value (as well as awesome work). The exhibition even had its own gift shop (I got a tote bag)! Coincidentally, both campuses also offered stunning views of their cities. No matter where you are traveling, seeing BFA and MFA shows can be the best way to check out the newest artists, uncorrupted by art world pressures.
6. Tel Aviv Street Art
Brave the Israeli summer heat for a walking tour of Tel Aviv’s famous street art. For several years now, Tel Aviv’s art scene has expanded out of museum and galleries to nearly every public street. Never has graffiti been so beautiful. Despite its illegality, street art has thrived in Tel Aviv and work is often left up for the public to admire. I would recommend strolling around Florentin, a southern Tel Aviv neighborhood that has acted as the primary canvas for many Israeli street artists. This hipster area will have the most, and the best, street art to see and you can even book a walking tour if you prefer.
7. Nachalat Binyamin Artist Market
Finally, you can’t leave Israel without purchasing a few souvenirs. For a change from the fine art scene, as well as a shopportunity, don’t miss the Nachalat Binyamin artist market. This large and beautiful craft fair is open on Tuesdays and Fridays right by Carmel Market, Tel Aviv’s famous shuk (open air marketplace, like a bazaar). Stroll through endless jewelry, glassware, ceramics, paintings, and much more. All the pieces are handmade and sold by local artists and you can even use the opportunity to try out your bargaining skills. This artist market is one of the highlights of the Israeli art community, and a great way to close your tour of Israel on a high note.
Photographs courtesy of Rachel Kubrick