Saturday, March 9, 2019

Women's status in the arts - International Women's Day at the Willy Brandt Center, Jerusalem

Courtesy Willy Brandt Center, Jerusalem

To celebrate International Women’s Day, March 8th 2019, the Willy Brandt Center (Jerusalem) hosted “Women Unite”, a panel evening to discuss women’s status in the arts. Panel members were Muna Khleifi, Dalia Manor and Masha Zusman, all women in the field of the arts; Petra Klose was the event’s moderator.


Petra Klose, the Jerusalem Willy Brandt Center’s “Social Art” project coordinator, opened the evening by welcoming guests (there were two men present) and introduced the three panel members. She stressed that the subject of women’s status in the arts was not an issue for just one day a year, but that it should be an ongoing agenda. She mentioned that the Jerusalem WBC is run solely by women but that in most organizations, men hold the senior positions.


Each panel member spoke of her background and work. Born in the Ukraine, Masha Zusman immigrated to Israel in 1989. As a child, she had wanted to engage in music, dance and drawing, but ended up studying Physics, earning her PhD in Theoretical Physics in 1999 from Ben Gurion University. At age 28, she enrolled at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design (Jerusalem), making her way into the world of art with great success. Zusman’s work has been exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions including the Tate Modern, London; Essl Museum, Vienna; Centraal Museum, Utrecht; the Israel Museum, Jerusalem; and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. In 2005, Zusman co-founded the Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem, a socially engaged, independent, artist-run space, in which she is currently still involved. She is an activist and teacher and has been teaching in the Fine Arts Department of the Bezalel Academy since 2007.


Muna Khleifi lives in Ramallah. Not an artist, as a young girl she did have contact with the arts, taking part in after-school activities. Working with the British Council, the first organization to present overseas arts to the Arab community, she was promoted to being project manager, bringing guest artists to hold workshops and present such events as Shakespearean plays. Her most conscientious project was bringing the musical “Stomp”, with its large cast, to perform at a festival in Ramallah.  Khleifi changed jobs, taking on the role of project administrator of the Barenboim Foundation. Her close connection with music stemmed from her children, who both studied music, and her involvement with their music studies. In her work with the Barenboim Foundation, she brought renowned artists to perform for the Arab community. The Barenboim-Said Music Centre offers tuition in European music to local children. She spoke of problems to be solved - the fact that this music was unfamiliar to the community and that Palestinians were not in the habit of sending girls to learn music. As the result of her working through schools and making contact with parents, things have changed; many children now attend the conservatory, taking part in five concerts a year.


Art historian Dr. Dalia Manor studied at Tel Aviv University, where most art history students at the time were women. She then taught art history in high schools and wrote art criticism in newspapers, also engaging in curatorial work. Dalia Manor’s major focuses are Israeli art, modern art and national identity and she has published numerous articles, catalogues and reviews on art in Israel. Her book “Art in Zion” deals with the link between art and national ideology, specifically between the artistic activity that emerged in Jewish Palestine in the first decades of the 20th century and the Zionist movement. After living in London for 12 years Manor returned to Israel, teaching in colleges and doing curatorial work. Eight years ago, she became director and curator of the Negev Museum of Art.  


Dalia Manor spoke of the fact that the latest survey (2017) has showed that in art exhibits at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Israel Museum, only 30% of exhibits were by women; this was higher than in previous surveys. She added that this statistic was no lower than in many other countries. She pointed out that the market value of male (living) artists is higher. Due to this conservatism, women artists have been pushed aside. She said that change is coming about slowly. The Bezalel School, for example, is intent on finding a female department head, but so far without success. Khleifi spoke of there being many successful women in the Palestinian music industry, but that they are not part of the management; decisions are still left to men. She spoke of the fact that there are many Palestinian women artists, but that the majority are men. Zusman spoke of the tiny Barbour Gallery in Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighbourhood, of which she was one of the five founders; the other four were men, but that the ratio is now changing. Still involved in it, she said that the “female touch” should continue, that women have a totally different vibe and manage to solve problems more easily. Masha Zusman is enjoying success in her teaching job at Bezalel and is seeing more and more successful women artists.


There was some discussion about women’s work in the plastic arts. Manor said that it has often been considered to be too much about the body and the emotions. Till now, in which case, being recognized as a good artist has meant women needing to paint like men.


Present at the event, Stephanie Merdler, international relations manager of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra Foundation, told those present that the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1936, but that the first woman to conduct the IPO did so only in 2018! Following initial reticence among the orchestral players, the atmosphere warmed up to the conductor as they worked with her, the end result being that there was excitement in the air. Stephanie Merdler also emphasized the need to promote women composers here and overseas.


The artists and audience began to discuss how to bring about change in women’s status in the arts. One audience member claimed that much would depend on good curating to choose fine women artists. Another spoke of the relevance of where the money was coming from.  Dalia Manor spoke of the importance of awareness, that art history teachers should not only teach their students about male artists, but bring their attention to the great women artists of the early 20th century and earlier. Muna Khleifi said that the empowering of women should come from the media, the home and education in the schools, even in pre-school education. (She did mention, however, that some women in high positions tend to suppress other women!) She said a woman of skills should just be herself, what she is, and take initiative to do what she believes in, this saving her the energy needed to struggle. One year, Masha Zusman and her colleagues of the Barbur Gallery noticed that all the exhibits had been works of male artists, so they changed their principles on the matter. Masha Zusman is now seeing more and more successful women artists. Dalia Manor insists that we still have a lot of work to do, that she puts hope in the younger men in top positions promoting women and that we should challenge the public to demand more presence of women in the arts.


Following the symposium, panel members and guest mingled to exchange ideas over a glass of wine.

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