The museum closed after 47 participants in a group show demanded the withdrawal of their art as a show of solidarity with David Reeb, whose work was removed from the exhibition. The exhibition was the first at the museum following a years-long renovation.
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The dispute began after the museum took down a painting by Reeb at the urging of the city’s mayor, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, who deemed it offensive. The Reeb painting in question, Jerusalem (1997), depicts two black and white mirrored images of an Orthodox Jewish man standing at the Western Wall. Alongside them are Hebrew-language captions reading “Jerusalem of Gold” and “Jerusalem of Shit.” It appeared in “The Institution,” an exhibition of explicitly political works organized by the museum’s chief curator, Svetlana Reingold.
In a statement, the museum expressed “sorrow and disappointment” over the results of the mediation process. The institution said it, “worked resolutely to promote the continued existence of the exhibition,” but ultimately was unsuccessful.
Jerusalem hadn’t elicited an outcry when it appeared at other venues. Reeb told Hyperallergic that the mayor’s comments on the piece were “insulting,” adding, “He just saw a political opportunity and seized on it.” Reeb makes work about issues of state oppression in Israel, and has previously shown his art at the Documenta quinquennial and Tate Modern.
Tel Aviv’s mayor, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, condemned the work several days after the show’s opening on December 23, describing it as “racist towards ultra-orthodox Jews.” In response to mounting pressure from Shama-Hacohen and reported threats to defund the state-subsidized institution, the museum’s board of directors voted to remove the work from display. In a show of solidarity, a majority of the participating 60 artists in the exhibition responded to the decision by covering over their works with black fabric. The artists had demanded the removal of their works altogether, but by the time the museum closed this week, they had remained on view with covers on top of them.
The activist appealed the decision in a Tel Aviv court in a hearing on December 29. With representation by the Israeli Association for Civil Rights, Reeb and his counsel argued that the decision to take down the painting violated the state’s 1983 Museum Law, which stipulates that museum exhibitions are protected from government interventions. The court sided with the museum and subsequently ordered that no further changes be made to the exhibition until a decision is reached.
“The Institution” was the museum’s first exhibition following a multi-million dollar expansion that began in 2017. The project grew so expensive that it forced the museum to make some unpopular financial maneuvers, including the deaccessioning of works from its permanent collection, to raise further funding.