Art-Up Nation: Realizing the Vision

I recently participated in the “Vision for the State of Israel in its 75th Year” conference organized by the “Reut” Institute. It sought to formulate a vision for the State of Israel in 2023 in terms of its social-economic, scientific-technological, national security, and even national-civic dimensions. Ironically, although the conference was hosted at the Habimah Theatre, its agenda conspicuously lacked any attempt to formulate a vision for a central and vital area of our lives – Israeli arts and culture. This domain was not included as one of the strategic goals for advancing Israeli society, but its absence is not surprising. Local artistic activity is often seen as a kind of sweetener of everyday life, distracting us from life-and-death issues, as a more or less successful effort to live a ‘normal life’ here.

Any novice organizational consultant would say that to formulate a vision for a commercial, non-profit, or governmental organization, not to mention a state, the first step needed is to identity its strengths and resources. The time has come, once and for all, to recognize Israeli art and Israeli artists, in all their diversity, as one of Israel’s strategic assets. As I’ve passionately presented here before, Israel is not only a Start-up nation – we are an Art-up Nation.

Israel’s cultural excellence is a source of local and global pride and unity – two sorely needed elements when soberly assessing our internal divides and our existential need to create a shared society here. Our arts and culture also play a critical role in shaping Israel’s character by expressing and sustaining our democratic fiber, as a key part of our civil society – for example, much of the role of theater, dance and visual arts here in amplifying and containing diverse and often controversial voices, hence broadening civil discourse in Israel in a non-violent way. The milieu of the arts here provide social and economic opportunities for talented individuals in Israel’s geographic and social periphery, and serve as a tool of ‘selective integration’ for Arab citizens, Ethiopian citizens and haredim into Israeli society.

Our cultural entrepreneurism continues to prosper thanks to generations of new artists who are committed to achieving the highest standards and to expressing their artistic truths.  This designation of Art-up Nation suits Israel because cultural leaders around the world continue to open their arms to Israeli artists and artistic institutions and to recognize and praise their unique talents and gifts. While we have trouble seeing it this way, there should be no mistake – the increasing protests surrounding performances of Israeli artists abroad are an unmistakable sign that we are an Art-up Nation. For example, in recognition of its quality, “The Incubator” Theater troupe from Jerusalem was invited to perform its stellar show “This City” this summer at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival but local demonstrations kept it from performing. This is indeed exceedingly frustrating. Yet paradoxically, it is a sign, first of all, that we are perceived as a cultural force to be reckoned with; it is not only a protest against Israeli government policy. Ultimately, “This City” was performed in other venues in Great Britain with packed houses, receiving critical acclaim.

Credit: The Incubator Theatre

Realizing the potential of Art-Up Nation rests on five pillars of action:

1) 1% for the Soul 

The Forum of Arts and Cultural Institutions has initiated a brilliant and important policy proposal: “1% for the Soul.” The goal of the campaign is to pass a law that will enlarge and formalize the portion of the governmental budget earmarked for cultural institutions and artists (1% of the overall state budget), as well as to instill a broad appreciation that a healthy and prosperous society needs thriving arts and culture to prosper. This campaign brings together artists from all fields and backgrounds – it is a concrete and worthy goal requiring political will for the proposed law to be enacted and implemented. It represents the public interest, not only that of the artists.

2) “Meaningful Learning” 

Our excellent teachers and stellar institutions of higher education in Israel – the music academies, the acting, visual arts and dance schools, universities, and colleges – are those who train the next generation of Israeli artists, often under adverse conditions. The teachers choose to tie their fates and careers to Israeli society and the local arts world, and to fulfill their aspirations by establishing their lives here. Strengthening and broadening the base of arts education from kindergarten through 12th grade could link to and authentically express the intentions of the “Meaningful Learning” reform led by the Minister of Education, Rabbi Shai Piron. For arts education does not only cultivate talented, educated youths and future consumers – it creates productive and responsible citizens who are aware of and sensitive to their environment and to others. It is unthinkable that in a forward-looking country like Israel, most of the opportunities for arts education are available only to those with financial means. A promising change of direction is the Education Ministry’s current effort to formalize the status and budget of 40 music conservatories throughout Israel, which as afternoon schools are an impressive professional music educational infrastructure conceived of and initiated by the Ministry.

3) Cultivating and embracing outstanding young artists

Israel’s philanthropic community, in partnership with U.S., Canadian, and European philanthropists, includes pioneers who invest in young outstanding artists. These donors understand that professional assessment, support and cultivation of young artists are strategic investments. Full disclosure: this is the core business of AICF, of which I am very proud.

Rarely do the state institutions know how to embrace our young outstanding artists, even when prestigious prizes and even photo-ops are at hand. Such recognition, and the earmarking of resources for cultivating the best among our young artists, like those invested in young scientists and athletes, are vital for our Art-up Nation.

4) Upgrading exports

The government of Israel has an impressive infrastructure for international exposure in the fields of dance, theater, jazz, and “indie” music. In addition, there are a number of other export mechanisms in the fields of visual art, classical music, cinema, and literature. Festival directors and cultural institutions around the world are awestruck time and time again by the high quality of the Israeli submissions. Following successful efforts on the part of the Jewish communities, most notably, in Cleveland, Boston and Washington D.C. and in Toronto and Ottawa, with CICF (The Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation), and building on the exposures’ infrastructure, this domain of export should be strengthened and leveraged as a driver of economic growth, throughout Israel and not only for Tel Aviv. The actual financial responsibility for our artistic export currently falls chiefly on the shoulders of the artists and art institutions, leading to chronic and deeply frustrating missed opportunities. The leveraging of monetary resources, in conjunction with Jewish communities and producing bodies around the world will enable more and more independent artists and cultural organizations to exhibit and perform overseas. Upgrading the export sector of Art-up Nation will also address the concrete need of communities to connect to an Israel they can be proud of.

5) Branding the Art-up Nation

A number of years ago, the Foreign Ministry initiated a campaign titled “Brand Israel,” a large-scale project that included as part of its message the notion that Israel is a cultural force. In the world of marketing it is customary to refresh branding – in our case we need to first brand ourselves to ourselves and internalize that we are in fact an Art-up Nation.

It is crucial that the government direct its attention and resources to these areas. In the spirit of the Reut conference, if we actualize these pillars of action, we will not have to wait till Israel’s 75th birthday to see our vision realized.

About the Author
Lee Perlman is the Executive Director in Israel of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. Manhattan born and bred, Lee has lived in Israel since 1982. Ha'aretz newspaper named him in 2013 as one of "Israeli Culture's 100 Most Influential Figures". He received his Ph.D. on Israeli theater from Tel Aviv University. Lee is a research fellow on Israeli culture at the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University.
Related Topics
Related Posts