Artist Inbal Marie Cohen removing her work from an exhibition at the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art (courtesy Keren Bar-Gil)

The Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art near Tel Aviv shut down its doors yesterday, January 12, after failing to reach a compromise with 47 artists who asked to withdraw from its inaugural exhibition. The artists have petitioned the museum to reverse its decision to remove a controversial artwork by Israeli artist David Reeb due to political pressure from the local mayor. After a failure to resolve the conflict in court and in a subsequent mediation process, the museum pulled the plug on the exhibition less than a month after it opened.

At the center of the controversy is Reeb’s 1997 painting “Jerusalem,” which includes the Hebrew words “Jerusalem of Shit” next to a depiction of an ultra-Orthodox Jew praying at the Western Wall. The work took part in a large survey of “institutional critique” in Israeli art, opened at the recently expanded museum on December 23, 2021.

Two days after the opening, the municipal museum removed Reeb’s painting from the exhibition at the request of Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen, who deemed the work “racist towards ultra-orthodox Jews.” A backlash ensued, with almost 90% of participating artists accusing the city and the museum of censorship. In response, they demanded to withdraw their works from the exhibition in solidarity with Reeb.

David Reeb, “Jerusalem” (1997) featuring captions that read “Jerusalem of Gold” and “Jerusalem of Shit.” (courtesy the artist)

In an interview with Hyperallergic last month, Reeb defended his painting 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.” He added that the work was not meant to be disrespectful toward religious Jews.

Represented by the Israeli Association for Civil Rights, Reeb appealed the museum’s decision in a Tel Aviv court. A judge ruled that Shama Hacohen has overstepped his authority but said that the decision rests with the museum’s board of directors, which had already voted in favor of removing Reeb’s work. (The museum’s board is chaired by Ramat Gan Deputy Mayor Roy Barzilai; one-third of the trustees are elected officials.) Instead, the judge urged the two sides to reach a compromise and suggested installing the work in a closed-off room with a warning sign to viewers.

In a statement on its website yesterday, the museum expressed “sorrow and disappointment over the results of the mediation process between the artists and representatives of the Ramat Gan Municipality,” adding that it will refund tickets to patrons as it decides its next moves.

Israel’s Art Institutions Coalition, a body that represents 40 art organizations, accused the municipality of showing no goodwill and presenting an “unacceptable demand” during the negotiations with the artists. In a statement earlier this week, the coalition said that the artists proposed displaying the work behind a barrier with a warning sign but the city insisted on “caging” the painting in a warehouse room that is not accessible to the public.

Meanwhile, the artists have begun removing their works from the museum’s walls, sharing pictures of the emptied galleries on social media. In a previous protest, they shrouded their works and waved black flags inside the museum.

Ofri Cnaani, one of the artists who withdrew from the exhibtion, told Hyperallergic: “We left the museum no choice but to close its doors. It is a reminder that there is no art museum without artists, but there are artists without the museum.”

“We made all possible efforts to make sure Reeb’s piece will be included in the show in a way that will be respectful for every visitor. The populist mayor rejected them all,” Cnaani continued. “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.”

Cnaani said that the artists plan to create a “non-institutional” digital archive that will host documentation of their work and their protests against the museum and mayor.

In an email to Hyperallergic yesterday, Reeb said that the showcase of solidarity by artists and art institutions was a silver lining in an otherwise unfortunate affair.

“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,” he wrote.

“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,” the artist continued. “I think that’s more important.” 

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...