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Israeli museum shutters its doors after 47 artists ask to remove their work

A museum near Tel Aviv, which first opened nearly 35 years ago, has ceased operations after failing to reach an agreement with 47 artists who accused the museum — and the city — of censorship, and demanded that their work be removed.

The artists had asked The Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art to reverse its decision to withdraw a controversial painting by Israeli artist David Reeb that juxtaposes the Hebrew words “Jerusalem of Shit” and a depiction of a Haredi Jew davening at the Western Wall. The museum’s decision to remove Reeb’s work was prompted by a request from the mayor of Ramat Gan, who, according to the New York-based online arts magazine Hyperallergic, said the work was “racist towards ultra-Orthodox Jews.”

In solidarity with Reeb, nearly 90% of participating artists petitioned for their works to be withdrawn from the exhibit.

“It’s a pity the exhibition had to close due to the mayor’s and the museum management’s political cynicism and that a really nice art-purposed space has gone to waste,” Reeb wrote in an email to Hyperallergic.

“But I’m happy about the participating artists’ solidarity, and that they managed to stand up together against censorship of a work of art by a politician. I think that’s more important.”

Reeb told Hyperallergic that his 1997 painting “Jerusalem” was not meant to disrespect religious Jews, instead describing the work as a critique of the “instrumentalization and sentimentalization of Jewish attachment to the Western Wall in order to justify the occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.”

“Jerusalem” was displayed at the museum as part of a larger “institutional critique” that launched on Dec. 23, 2021. However, two days after the exhibit opened, the museum complied with Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen’s request to remove Reeb’s painting.

Reeb, represented by the Israeli Association for Civil Rights, appealed the museum’s decision in a Tel Aviv court. A judge ruled that the mayor had gone too far, but that the museum’s board of directors were allowed to remove Reeb’s work. The museum board is chaired by Ramat Gan Deputy Mayor Roy Barzilai, and one-third of the trustees are elected officials.

A compromise could not be reached with the protesting artists in subsequent mediation, and so the museum closed on Jan. 12, less than a month after the exhibition, its first since a recent remodeling, opened.

The artist Ofri Cnaani told Hyperallergic that she and the other artists “made all possible efforts” to come to an agreement with the “populist mayor.”

In a statement on its website, the museum expressed “sorrow and disappointment over the results of the mediation process between the artists and representatives of the Ramat Gan Municipality.”

The artists have begun removing their work, which they plan to document in a digital archive.

“We left the museum no choice but to close its doors,” Cnaani told Hyperallergic. “It is a reminder that there is no art museum without artists, but there are artists without the museum.”

She added: “We feel absolutely at peace with the decision to remove our pieces, as it sparks much wider public discussion about the role of cultural institutions and the price of censorship.”

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