Israeli-born, New York-based installation artist Tirtzah Bassel uses multi-colored duct tape in the way that other artists use oil paints. Harnessing the potential of the hardware store staple, she creates mural-size scenes that audiences can observe near and far to appreciate the unusual medium’s detail and texture.
Last May, Bassel created one of her duct tape installations in a storefront in El Paso, Texas. The colorful work, titled, “Your Dreams Available Now,” depicts scenes from the border crossing between El Paso and Juarez, Mexico. It includes men in cowboy hats sitting and watching passersby, a woman selling flowers, people crossing bridges on foot and by bike, and even a statue of the Virgin Mary. The mural is meant to engage the local community in critical dialogue on the impact of the border.
It wasn’t by chance that Bassel created her installation in El Paso. She had been invited there by fellow Jewish artist Peter Svarzbein, an El Paso native. Svarzbein, who is a photographer and conceptual artist, is interested in subjects such as state security, bridges, border crossings and standing in line. Several of his recent projects deal with the nearby frontier, including “The El Paso Transnational Trolley Project,” which explores the tenuous relationship between El Paso and Juarez.
But El Paso residents would likely have never had the opportunity to enjoy Bassel’s thought-provoking installation had she not attended the first-ever Asylum Arts retreat in Garrison, New York in March 2013. It was there that she met Svarzbein, along with 63 other young Jews artists from North America, Europe, Latin America and Israel.
Asylum Arts is new global network for Jewish culture, and one of its main goals is to facilitate collaborations like the one between Bassel and Svarzbein. Formally established this past October following the successful March retreat, the organization hosts gatherings and training for artists and provides modest grants to foster connections to broaden the reach and impact of Jewish artists and arts institutions. Asylum Arts is supported in its pilot phase by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network and the Genesis Philanthropy Group.
While artists cannot look to Asylum Arts for substantial fellowships, the network does provide a modicum of refuge for young Jewish artists at a time when grants for Jewish culture are harder to obtain and venerable organizations like the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Culture are closing their doors.
“It was an oasis for us,” says San Francisco-based Jewish artist and performer Dan Wolf about the first retreat, at which he and his fellow artists shared their art, explored Jewish ideas, and gained critical professional skills — especially in the area of fundraising.
“There’s nothing out there for us as institutional Jewish life moves away from appreciating and supporting the arts,” Wolf says about the decrease in funding he and his cohort are facing.
Asylum Arts director Rebecca Guber has first-hand knowledge of these budget cuts. Before starting Asylum Arts, she was the director of Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, which was was a program of the Foundation for Jewish Culture and currently only exists in Los Angeles.
‘Jewish communal powers are not interested in culture’
“Jewish communal powers are not interested in culture,” says Foundation for Jewish Culture president and CEO Elise Bernhardt. At the same time, she notes that Jewish funders are interested in young people and recognize, especially in light of the results of recent studies, that art is a portal to engagement.
She cautions, however, that Asylum Arts, which provides a small amount of financial support to a large number of artists, does not go deep enough to help Jewish arts and culture to flourish in a big way and for the long term.
According to Guber, Asylum Arts will make grants between $1,000 and $3,000 through a competitive process to artists who have attended one of the organization’s retreats (the application process for the network’s March 2014 retreat is already closed).
“This is not a fellowship model. It may be more sustainable organizationally, but it’s not enough for artists to make a living,” Bernhardt says. “Asylum Arts is about planting many seeds and hoping some will stick, as opposed to planting a smaller number of seeds deeply and nourishing them.”
“A small grant can be the amount needed to get a play finished or make a gallery show happen,” offers David Rittberg, senior program officer at the Schusterman Family Foundation.
“Even a small grant with a hekhsher can help leverage support,” Bernhardt concedes.
Artists recognize that Asylum Arts is not a major source of funding, and appreciate it for what it does offer them. For each of them, the benefit of being part of the network is a little different.
Filmmaker Liz Nord, a veteran of many conferences and initiatives for young Jewish leaders and innovators (including the Schusterman-sponsored ROI, on which Asylum Arts is modeled) found the Jewish conversation at Asylum Arts richer than in other forums.
“The approaches to Judaism are so refreshing, unique and outside the box,” she says.
She finds the artists’ approach to Judaism from an outsider’s perspective and through a different lens both exhilarating and reassuring.
“These guys get me. These are my people,” she says.
For some, like Tel Aviv-based dancer and choreographer Idan Cohen, just taking the time out of a demanding lifestyle to let fellow artists in, so to speak, is meaningful.
He discovered all the artists shared a common language regardless of their individual artistic disciplines.
‘I discovered new pathways and doors to my fellow artist’s vocabulary, visions and inner worlds’
“Through meetings and personal encounters, we exposed the things we go through as artists,” he says. “Through this sharing, I discovered new pathways and doors to my fellow artist’s vocabulary, visions and inner worlds.”
For African-American Yiddish singer Anthony Russell, Asylum Arts is about validation.
“It was an important moment for me when I found out my application to the retreat was accepted. I had only been a Jewish artist for a couple of years, so it was huge for me,” he shares.
The sense of community created at the retreat is also important for the artists. “Until then, I thought I was like a heder student toiling away by the light of a single candle,” Russell says. “I realized I wasn’t alone.”
The connections forged at the retreat have remained strong among many of the participants. Bassel and Svarzbein are far from the only participants who have collaborated since last March.
After returning to the Bay Area, Wolf called on Russell to collaborate with him on a performance piece related to Wolf’s job as content producer for the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.
A group of artists living in Brooklyn are meeting monthly to share their work and support one another. Nord, who has been working on a film in Israel for the past several months, looks forward to returning home to Brooklyn and getting involved with that group.
While Asylum Arts has been a shot in the arm for most participants, for Colombian-Israeli singer and actor Ella Fuksbrauner, it has completely revived her career.
“I was in a terrible dark stagnating hole. I had not been able to create art for a long time. Asylum Arts reminded me of who I am and what I am capable of,” she shares.
A chance meeting with Israeli choreographer Gil Harush at the retreat last March led to a recent partnership and a chance for Fuksbrauner to not only branch out to dance, but also to really turn things around for herself.
“Gil heard me singing by accident in the hallway during the retreat,” she recounts. “Now, we just finished showing our first piece together. I just got home from our performance at the Rebecca Crown Auditorium in Jerusalem.”