Pushing the Past Forward: A Conversation with Israel Museum Director James Snyder

Pushing the Past Forward: A Conversation with Israel Museum Director James Snyder
The final week of July was a whirlwind of celebrations for an improved and expanded Israel Museum, Jerusalem — the first few events were for Israeli officialdom, and the final one threw the doors open to the public. All of this made the museum’s director, the dynamic Museum of Modern Art veteran James Snyder, 58, an extremely difficult man to pin down. ARTINFO senior correspondent Sarah Douglas caught up with Snyder after things had finally settled, and spoke with him about what the museum means for Israel, the importance of optimism, why it is sometimes best to keep an outsider’s perspective, and why we should all listen closely to the angel of history.

I was at the official public opening night of the expanded museum and there was a dance party next to a huge outdoor Anish Kapoor sculpture, there were musical and dance performances throughout the museum, and there was even a concert in the sculpture garden by Israeli pop sensation Yehudit Ravitz. It was pretty amazing.

I think it’s amazing that we had 8,000 people at our opening!

Eight thousand people on just that one night?

Yes, between 8 pm and 2 am. You know that Jerusalem goes to bed at 11 pm, so that was really something.

I was very taken with that night’s "Contact Point" program, a curated selection of performers — musicians and dancers mainly — reacting creatively to individual artworks in the museum. There was a children’s choir singing in front of an Olafur Eliasson painting. What was the inspiration behind "Contact Point"?

It took that form because this is meant to be a place that underscores the message about synthesis — whether it’s synthesis among landscape, architecture, art and archaeology, or intercultural and intercommunal synthesis. So the idea for that evening was to have creative individuals connect with, engage with, resonate with, and interact with aspects of the museum.

There is currently a foundation that is working to create an annual "season of culture" in Jerusalem, which would involve all kinds of cultural organizations, and would potentially debut next summer. What do you think of that idea?

There is something amazing about Jerusalem that gets lost in the world geopolitic. There is a deep vein of cultural resources here. A season of culture every summer would underscore this unique aspect of the Jerusalem landscape. The museum is an important part of that.

While I was in Jerusalem, the mayor told a group of journalists that he sees culture as one of the ways he is going to achieve a goal of something like 10 million visitors a year to Jerusalem. Cultural organizations in Israel are dealing with very specific issues, though, I have to imagine. What have your attendance figures told you about fluctuations in cultural tourism over the years?

All of these things are tied together. You can’t separate one institution from the whole landscape of Israel. When I arrived here 13 years ago, the museum’s attendance was anywhere between 400,000 and 600,000 visitors a year, depending on the year. In 1999, we had 825,000 visitors and in 2000 we were well on our way to a million visitors. But when the second intifada began that September, our attendance went, overnight, from very strong to almost nonexistent. Still, that year still ended with 700,000 visitors. In the challenging years of the intifada, when even in-country tourism was negligible, we were still doing 300,000 to 350,000 a year, solely from Jerusalem attendance. What amazed me was that in a city of 650,000 people, in a country of 6.5 million people, we were getting 350,000 visitors a year, all based on local interest. I was struck by how loyal people were to their home museum. In the last two years before the reopening, even with 90 percent of the campus not operating, we still averaged 500,000 visits a year, which is astonishing. It was visits to the sculpture garden, to the Shrine of the Book [where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept], and the Shrine’s campus, which includes a scale model of the second temple. This attendance was all due to local commitment and the regrowth of tourism — around 50 percent of each.

So there is actually a great deal of interest in this museum within Israel.

What really has struck me in the past week is the response of Israel broadly. This is really a very small country, but it’s one in which people don’t move around so easily and freely. Though close geographically, Tel Aviv is really very far away from Jerusalem.

The newspaper Haaretz gave the museum quite a vote of confidence in an editorial that ran just after the opening I attended.

It was a moving statement about the opening of the renewed museum making a statement about reviving Israel’s original modernist vision of a grandeur of modesty, that the museum was making a cultural statement about how it might not become a great world repository of Old Master treasures, but could still hold its own on the world cultural landscape.

Tell me a bit about that "grandeur of modesty."

There was something about the magic of the modernist vision of Israel in its first period, and it’s difficult, as the world globalizes, for people to remember how estimable that vision was. It has to do a little bit with the development of the concept for the museum’s project. It wasn’t about focusing on name architecture. It was about bringing out and realizing fully an original vision. Thinking of modernism as a sort of catalytic moment that lets you look backward, while still always being at the front edge. I can think of a lot of museum projects that would have tried to accomplish something different here, but would have instead been about taking existing things down and making an architectural statement — letting content follow, rather than letting content lead.

What to your mind is the most successful aspect of this improved, expanded museum?

Really two things. One is the idea I outlined above, about modesty, which we thought of before the world changed in the fall of 2008 and the economics of philanthropy changed so substantially. We set out to demonstrate that if you’re working with the great bones of existing structures you can make a transforming change that is content-centric, and do it with modesty, where modesty becomes grand. And where the result is beautiful. The second thing I also mentioned earlier: the response of the country. It’s easy to think that something somewhere else is more amazing than something at home, so the way the country is responding to the museum is extraordinary. Cultural tourism doesn’t just mean people from outside of Israel, it means people from outside of Jerusalem, from the rest of Israel.

The goals for the construction time and budget of this museum were pretty ambitious, weren’t they?

If you had asked me five years ago if I thought it was realistic that we could rebuild the Israel Museum on a 30-month schedule, reengineer 200,000 square feet and create 100,000 new square feet, all for $100 million, I would have told you that I wasn’t sure that was realistic, but that we could find a way to do it. And we did.

What about the inherent difficulties of Jerusalem itself, all the hurdles and complications in terms of political and religious matters?

I live here with an outsider’s perspective. I only see in Jerusalem this amazingly beautiful and culturally synthetic place. People who have been here for much longer than I have see the challenges of politics, religion. I don’t see it. I see this incredibly beautiful landscape that seems to have this amazingly connected history, stretching from very long ago right up to the present. I see a place where architecture seems to bubble up from the landscape. Even during the worst time of the intifada, when our kids were teenagers, they were out and about. We did not feel the weight of that. Actually I think it was an interesting learning experience.

You might be said to have a "can do" attitude toward things. And you seem to have inspired one at the museum, where I noticed some pretty daring choices in the reinstallation. I was particularly impressed with the placement of a monumental sculpture of a naked African boy, by the young artist Ohad Meromi.

"The Boy from South Tel Aviv," which we decided to acquire the moment I saw it installed at "Real Time," an exhibition we did in 2008, is now installed in the upper entrance hall. It’s unbelievably powerful. Of course I hope Ohad Meromi is alive and well, but in a way I also hope he died and went to heaven when he saw the unbelievable placement of the piece. Think Michelangelos "David" made of marble, and then think of Meromis "Boy from South Tel Aviv," made of Styrofoam covered with black paper. It’s both extremely local and extremely universal. And no one has gotten cranky about it or told us not to do it. It comes back to what the museum might mean here: maybe there’s a little bit of a message to stop looking at the obstacles, and just do things.

If you had to pick a favorite piece in the museum’s collection, what would it be?

The thing that might move me most in this collection is Paul Klees transfer drawing with watercolor called "Angelus Novus." It says a huge amount about how Israel came into being, and how meaningful emerging modernism is. The way it came into this collection says so much about the creation of Israel. That’s why it became the mascot of the museum, and is on the cover of the collection catalogue we published in 2005. It was owned by Walter Benjamin and bequeathed to Gershom Scholem. It finally ended up in Israel after a long journey. Everything about it resonates with not just the history of modernism but the history of the 20th century that caused the creation of Israel. And it’s connected to another piece in the museum’s collection, Anselm Kiefers sculpture "The Angel of History," which is currently in an exhibition here curated by the artist Susan Hiller. Because Benjamin was inspired by the Klee drawing while he was writing his treatise the angel of history, who is thrust backward into the future, recoiling from the horror of the past. And that treatise, of course, inspired Kiefer. Klee’s drawing is fragile, and it is rarely on view, but it’s on view now, in the first installation in the Prints and Drawings Galleries.