Contemporary Art in the ‘Holy City’

An interview with Jenna Romano, director of Contemporary Art in Jerusalem, about the surprising and diverse contemporary art scene in the holy city.

Visitors to Jerusalem do not usually come here for the art. In this respect, Jerusalem is unlike other ancient cities, whose monumental architecture, gardens, sculptures, and paintings are the face it shows to the world. It is also unlike most modern capitals who showcase their contemporary artists. In Jerusalem, the people are the face of the city. Yet as the Director of Contemporary Art in Jerusalem Jenna Romano describes, Jerusalemites are both producing art and interacting with the city and its inhabitants through their art. With no commercial art scene but with the Bezalel Academy of Art & Design and other schools such as The Jerusalem Studio School (Herschberg School), and the Naggar School of Photography, Media & New Music, the art scene in Jerusalem is unexpected and diverse. In the following interview, Romano gives us a glimpse into the contemporary art scene in Jerusalem.   

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: I was wondering if we could start by talking a little bit just about Contemporary Art in Jerusalem (CAIJ).  What is it?

Jenna Romano: Contemporary Art in Jerusalem CAIJ is a platform that I started 4 years ago with the purpose of promoting the local art scene in Jerusalem. It has a few different components. One is an online blog which features different articles, say, exhibition reviews or interviews with local artists. At the beginning of each week I publish a rundown of my top current recommendations called “Weekly Highlights,” which is also distributed as a newsletter. I also run a social media platform, and find that Instagram is the place where I can interact daily with international audiences. I enjoy posting the works of local artists and short texts about exhibitions, galleries and artists. At this point, I have close to five thousand followers on Facebook and Instagram, and the interest is constantly growing. The final feature of CAIJ are onsite tours in Jerusalem which include outdoor art tours, gallery hops, studio visits, and more. 

Olga Kirschbaum—Shirazki: Where are your online followers located?

Jenna Romano: They are mostly Israeli, European, and from the United States. Mostly Israel. I have a lot of followers from the United States and Europe, but mostly from Israel.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: What inspired you to start this platform?

Jenna Romano: When I arrived to Israel from the States eight years ago, I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay in Jerusalem. And I knew that if I did, then I would want to work in the arts.  My background is in the arts. I had moved to Israel to study Jewish studies in Jerusalem, and I really wanted to continue along this path as well. The only jobs that I could find at the time in the arts entailed writing about art for English publications, which is a passion of mine anyway. I started hopping around Jerusalem’s art scene and writing reviews about different exhibitions, and over time, I started to develop my knowledge of the local art scene and connect to it strongly. I thought there was something very special happening here and became ardently motivated to share this view with others.  At the time personal blogs were quite popular, so I thought it would be a nice project to start myself, a blog about art in Jerusalem.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: Even though Jerusalem is home to the major art school in Israel, Bezalel Academy, unlike Tel Aviv, it’s not known for its art scene. What surprised you initially about Jerusalem’s contemporary art scene? 

Jenna Romano: I was surprised by the amount of art that was being produced here.  I was very surprised because, as you said, when I first came to Jerusalem, I did not expect to find an active and growing contemporary art scene.  I really enjoyed discovering one gallery after another, one artist after another; It’s an endless journey, it’s diverse, there is so much happening here.  I fell in love with it because the art work being produced here is very authentic. This could be because there’s no big commercial art scene here. The artists and institutions here are less focused on keeping up with trends, and place a stronger emphasis on developing ideas, creating artworks that go conceptually hand in hand with the city’s narrative.  That was another thing that surprised me. Jerusalem, on the surface, is a very conservative city. But in the art world, you start to uncover very bold narratives. Ones that I think many people will agree are valuable in such an intense city. The art scene is where you encounter people who love Jerusalem immensely, and at the same time, are critical about what is happening here, you know, politically, religiously, etc.  I was surprised to find artists who are so passionate about this location. 

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: I want to come back to that question about the narrative, but first can we paint a picture of the Jerusalem art scene?

Jenna Romano:  It is very diverse, community driven, exciting, and underground. The professional art world is made up of young, hip artists who are straight out of Bezalel Academy, there are also many artists with more established experience behind them who exhibit internationally, and some artists who are experienced but just make art for art’s sake, because they believe in it as a tool for communication, not necessarily because they want to sell. Culturally it is all over the place, with active Israeli artists ranging from secular to Orthodox Jewish, immigrants, Palestinians. You can imagine the diversity of opinions concentrated within the artistic narrative. The gallery scene is mostly made up of underground or cooperative galleries, also institutions and non-profits, and some small commercial galleries.  

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: Returning to the notion of narrative, you mentioned the critical aspect. Can you give us a sort of panorama of the types of art that are coming out of Jerusalem? 

Jenna Romano: Yes, sure. Sometimes the artistic narrative here is lighthearted, but generally thought-provoking and sometimes very complicated. Because it is Jerusalem, which is such an intense city, I think a lot of the art being produced here involves the influence of location. Maybe you could call some it Zionist art, really reflecting on what it means to be Israeli, or particularly a Jerusalemite. Many artists reflect on the history of the city, but also on the changes that are taking place in the present. Palestinian artists have a completely different relationship to the city than Israelis do, to its history and present and art is often their way of vocalizing these experiences. There is also religious art, but the way it is portrayed varies. There are many artists who include spiritual elements in their works, or artists who are critical of Rabbanut [state-sanctioned rabbinical authority] and Orthodox culture. There is also a small but growing community of Orthodox Jewish artists who are opening up to the bigger art world which is really surprising. And then you have artists who are just observing Jerusalem as a whole, giving over a powerful picture of what the city is.  Like, for example, pictures of street life in Jerusalem or people in Jerusalem. There is a lot of creative experimentation happening and a strong avant garde energy. 

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: Is there any Christian art scene, or is there an art scene of foreign artists, that you’ve identified, who come to Jerusalem for these reasons?

Jenna Romano: That’s a good question. Well, yes there are many foreign artists living here but I don’t know if they come necessarily for religious reasons. Jerusalem fascinates a lot of foreigners because of its religious importance and political presence. Everybody has an encounter with this. It might come up in foreign artists’ work, but I do not know of a scene of Christian artists who come here exclusively for those reasons, no.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: What is the relationship between the city or the state and the artistic community in Jerusalem? 

Jenna Romano: Well, I think it is a complicated. There is funding and support for the arts in Jerusalem but not enough, there is never enough money devoted to arts and culture. And I think that there is an issue of taste and censorship here.  

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: Is the city actively trying to foster this art scene?

Jenna Romano: Yes. There is funding and support for the arts in Jerusalem. The city is alive with public art projects, funding, and art festivals. In the past few years I have seen really nice initiatives from the city. But it’s not enough, it seems like there is not enough money and strategic time devoted to arts and culture. And I think that there is an issue of taste, quality control, and censorship here. But I think the community here is strong and it is thanks to the artists, curators, and the founders of artistic initiatives that the artistic voice is being heard more and more.  

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: What is usually being censored?

Jenna Romano: Well, there are often artworks that have become censored for being too provocative or for not being in line with the ideologies of the fundraiser. I’ll emphasize that most artistic projects here depend on public funding or private donors.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: Is it criteria related to sexuality? Is it political? What are the sensitive issues?

Jenna Romano: All of the above, sexuality is sometimes an issue, politics of course, religion, if you have works that are not in line with what funders want to portray in this city then it can become an issue. If you have two artists, let’s say an Israeli and a Palestinian, who are funded by conflicting parties, they might not be able to work together. This is not typically the case, but it happens here. 

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: Artists are often viewed as, kind of, outsiders looking critically onto their society.  Do you think that the critical role played by artists in Jerusalem is similar to that played by artists elsewhere?

Jenna Romano: It’s more powerful in Jerusalem. The city is really in an intense moment, there is a lot of tension and it is growing, there are growing pains. I mean, the artists they’re really linchpins in creating critical dialogue here in Jerusalem. So many voices exist here and the critical voice of artists is sometimes the best way to jumpstart dialogue in this city. Think of all the conflicting parties living and working in Jerusalem. There is an art event for each of these groups to express their ideas. Not only their political views and religious orientation, but even their aesthetic desires. You have the Manofim Festival which celebrates contemporary Israeli Art, a Jerusalem Biennale which is focused on Jewish art, a Palestinian Biennale which encompasses Palestinian art, the Musrara Mix which is international and promotes new experimental arts. The artists that are a part of this city and especially exhibiting artists have the ability to start an important conversation and movement.  

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: Artists have also however been commissioned by patrons with power, and have promoted power rather than being critical.  Is there any official art here?

Jenna Romano: No but I think that this comes back to the censorship issue and the taste issue. I think a lot of times things have to be exhibited here because someone donated it or in the case of censorship leaving something out of an exhibition or project because the patron will not allow it. 

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: Can you say a little about Jerusalem’s art scene in relation to Tel Aviv.  Is there any cross-pollination?

Jenna Romano: Yes, we always say the distance between Jerusalem to Tel Aviv is smaller than the distance between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  I think that it takes a specific type event, like the opening of a particular artist’s exhibition, something really unique like the Art Book Fair, or an event at the Israel Museum, to bring the Tel Aviv art world over to Jerusalem. Where artists and professionals in Jerusalem want to see what is happening in Tel Aviv and are a part of that world as well. There is a lot more activity in Tel Aviv. 

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: Can you tell me a little bit about the gallery ecosystem? Are these private galleries, state galleries, how did this world housing art come to be?

Jenna Romano: Sure. You will not find many private galleries here. There are two private galleries, Rosenbach and Art Space, that are quite off the radar but have potential to do good work. You have institutional spaces like the Israel Museum and Ticho House, and very important non-profit venues like The Artists House, Barbur Gallery, or Jerusalem Print Workshop. There are venues which combine artists studios with gallery spaces and these are very important for cultivating a community, like Art Cube Artists Studios and The New Gallery. There are a few municipal galleries as well. Something that is quite common in Jerusalem, and very much in line with the ethos of the art world here, is the cooperative spaces like Hamiffal or Agripas 12 Gallery. A big question regarding its development is why there are so few private, commercial spaces here. I think Tel Aviv already had its place in this world, and that most of the artists from Jerusalem who were or are motivated to sell move there, or to other cities across the globe.  

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: I want to talk a little bit about your tours. Who comes on them, who do you get on them, and why?

Jenna Romano: Tourists who are looking for something new to do in Jerusalem, art aficionados who want to collect or understand what is trending in the Middle Eastern art scene. I also have a pretty solid group of locals who come on the tours regularly, They like to see what is happening here, the locals, and I think it’s a more pleasant experience for some to be guided through the art scene, to be fed the framework which I prepare. I try to make it accessible when it needs to be and I like to lead people into thoughtful discussions about what they see so that they can learn to talk about it and process it on their own. For collectors, I often want them to visit studios and see works that are interesting according to their tastes.  

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: You talked a bit about the narratives. Can we talk about art itself in terms of materials—sculpture, painting, drawing.  Are there any trends there or in styles?

Jenna Romano: I think the art scene here is really not trendy, for better or worse. It is very much created on an individual basis. And although artists travel here a lot to get inspiration, I do not see local artists becoming  strongly influences by international trends. You would be shocked at how few artists here keep up with Instagram, social media, pop culture. They are so much in their own world. I do see the influence of the schools. You have artists who learn at Bezalel, where I think the strongest programs are Visual Communications, Video, and Ceramics. There are many good ceramic and glass artists here in Jerusalem and I think they are getting attention. The Fine Art department at Bezalel emphasizes a lot of theory and conception but there is no rigorous technical element. So you see a lot of these artists completely experimenting with materials, very free, and it takes them time to develop their style. Musrara has a more experimental program and artists coming out of there are developing art that attempts to break boundaries, both socially and in terms of technique with things like experimental sound and photo, performance art, and VR. Then you have students from the Hirschberg school who learn the foundations from an academic training system. I sometimes find them the most interesting, especially when they take that rigorous system and move towards abstraction and conceptual art. The Jerusalem Print workshop culminates printmaking activity here as well, so that is always on view.   

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: Are Jerusalem artists more experimental than artists in other global centers of art production?

Jenna Romano: No, I think there is experimentation everywhere in the art world, there has to be especially because we deal with technology. Perhaps Jerusalem artists are a bit less accustomed to following rules. 

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: You’ve mentioned the art schools, which seem to be a strong foundation for the art scene in Jerusalem. Bezalel was founded within the national project of creating Israel and creating a new Jewish or Zionist art. Is there any interest in this national dimension at all anymore, or are artists speaking their own narratives?

Jenna Romano: That is a great question. Now, artists are speaking their own narratives, which is a testament to the growth of this city. But you know, the art scene in Jerusalem is so young, that part of the contemporary narrative still involves breaking the narrative of the Bezalel school, Jewish Art, or Zionist narratives of the past. The national dimension might be there less so than in the past, but it is still there. 

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: What are your hopes for the future for the Jerusalem art scene, and for your own place within it?

Jenna Romano: I enjoy writing about and critiquing art, and I hope to develop my skills and reach out to more international publications about what is happening here.  I think more people should know about it, and the artists of Jerusalem should learn more about their effect on audiences. I also have business aspirations.  My role in revealing the art scene to more people has become impactful, between CAIJ, the art tours, and some art advising; and I want to see where it goes. Perhaps one day I will open a gallery or create an online space for buying art in Jerusalem. For now I enjoy the personal experience of working with people who want to learn more about the art scene or want to purchase art from a Jerusalem-based artist. 

I hope that Jerusalem’s art scene will continue to grow, and that the artists will receive opportunities and funding for their work, without however being tainted by systems or trends that are outside of it. I hope the art will stay true to the soul of the city.   I also want artists to challenge themselves to produce quality work, which includes accepting critical voices from outside and developing their own critical voices as well. 

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: Is there anything specific that you think international audiences should know, or anything that you tell the people who come on your tours?

Jenna Romano: Have an open mind and be prepared to ask questions. Think about what it is that you want to understand about modern Jerusalem. A lot of people come here and they only consider the history, the religion, the politics. But Jerusalem is much more, the art here is a representation of that. You might leave this city with more questions than answers! 


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