Ramat Gan art museum shuts its doors due to feud over controversial painting

Gallery says it was unable to reach a compromise with artists who pulled their works in protest at removal of installation deemed offensive to ultra-Orthodox

The entrance to the Ramat Gam Museum of Israeli Art. (Talmoryair/Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-3.0)
The entrance to the Ramat Gam Museum of Israeli Art. (Talmoryair/Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

A museum in Ramat Gan closed its doors Wednesday because nearly all the artists exhibiting there had demanded their art be removed, in a show of support for a fellow creator whose painting was pulled because it was deemed offensive to the ultra-Orthodox.

The Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art, near Tel Aviv, set off a firestorm in the art world last month when it took down a painting by artist David Reeb at the request of the city’s mayor, Carmel Shama-Hacohen.

Reeb’s painting shows two images of an ultra-Orthodox man praying at the Western Wall. The words “Jerusalem of gold,” a common phrase referring to the capital, are written in Hebrew next to one of the images, and next to the other are the words “Jerusalem of shit.”

In response to the removal, nearly all of the 50 other displaying artists said they wanted their works pulled unless the painting was restored.

Negotiations to reach a compromise failed, the museum said in a statement, expressing “grief and disappointment over the results of the mediation process between the artists and representatives of the Ramat Gan Municipality.”

It said that all events and presentations that had been planned for the near future were canceled, and that ticketholders would be reimbursed.

יש צדק ושופטים גם בתל אביב! היצירה המבזה לא תוצג בר"ג.✍️בית המשפט פסק שההחלטה שלנו להסיר את היצירה הפוגענית והגזענית…

Posted by ‎כרמל שאמה הכהן‎ on Thursday, December 30, 2021

“A decision will be made in the coming days regarding the museum’s next moves,” the gallery said.

A statement on behalf of the protesting artists blamed the municipality and the gallery’s administrative board for “not responding to compromise proposals by representatives of the artists.”

The artists said that since 45 out of the 50 creators displaying at the gallery had demanded their work be pulled, “it is clear that the exhibit has ceased to exist and has no legitimacy.”

“We all hope for a better future for the museum and the world of art and culture, without intervention by the political echelon in content and professional decisions,” the artists said.

The Ramat Gan Municipality said in a statement it would not give in to “the attempted blackmail by the removal of the works.”

City hall said the museum will consider other projects and within a few months will “set out on a new, reinforced and more attractive path.”

Reeb’s painting and that of the other artists was part of an exhibition titled “The Institution” which, according to the museum website, presented “institutional critique” with works “representing the violent but disguised power of the museum spaces, in which the audience is also the main victim.”

After the museum had opened the exhibition, mayor Shama-Hacohen posted a photo of the Reeb’s artwork on Facebook, asking the public whether they believed it should be removed or kept on display. The painting was later taken down by the museum at Shama-Hacohen’s request.

Carmel Shama-Hacohen, Mayor of Ramat Gan attends a convention for newly elected mayors and local council heads, in Ashkelon, November 27, 2018. (Flash90)

In protest, around 40 artists with works on display at the museum covered their artwork in black cloths. Shama-Hacohen then instructed museum staff to remove the cloths, which they did, setting off angry disputes with the artists.

A Tel Aviv court rejected a request from Reeb and the Association of Civil Rights in Israel to put the painting back on display.

Shama-Hacohen said the decision showed that preserving “human dignity” overrides the “utopian idea of complete and limitless freedom of expression.”

The judge, however, urged the museum to reach a compromise that would enable the artwork to be displayed in a secluded space, with a warning that its content could be considered offensive.

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