Birth of the Museum, 1932
The Tel Aviv Museum was established in 1932, at the instigation of the city’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff. He envisioned the growth of Tel Aviv into a vibrant modern metropolis with all its cultural institutions, including a museum of art. As part of his vigorous efforts to make this vision a reality, Dizengoff appealed to members of the arts and culture community in the city, enlisted his personal connections around the world, and ultimately even donated his own private residence as the new museum’s first abode.
In preparation for the opening of the Tel Aviv Museum, Dizengoff’s residence was remodeled to make it a suitable space for art display, leaving only the upper floor of the house for use as his private apartment. Various adjustments were made to transform the two-story residence into a public building: bedrooms were converted into three galleries, and additional sections were added in the back of the building. By the end of the construction, the building consisted of fifteen exhibition spaces and a concert and lecture hall — the very same hall in which the state of Israel would later be declared. At the same time, efforts were made to start establishing an art collection for the new museum.
The Museum’s opening exhibition comprised works from its collection (including those of Ury Lesser, Mané Katz, Amedeo Modigliani, Marc Chagall, and Chana Orloff), and works on loan by 34 local artists (including Yosef Zaritsky, Aharon Avni, David Handler, Anna Ticho, Batia Lichansky, Avraham Melnikov, Avigdor Stematsky, Reuven Rubin, and Sionah Tagger). In addition, the exhibition featured replicas of sculptures by masters like Michelangelo, Verrocchio, Bernini and others, depicting biblical figures. Dizengoff’s intent had been to create at the Museum a special Bible Gallery that would house these replicas, but he was eventually persuaded to abandon this idea.
On Saturday, April 2, 1932, the Tel Aviv Museum (as it was called until 1989) was officially inaugurated at Mayor Dizengoff’s home, at 16 Rothschild Boulevard. In his speech at the opening ceremony, the mayor said:
“As a perpetual memorial of the soul of the wife of my youth, the late Mrs. Zina Haya, who loved beauty and art with a passion, and for the greater honor and glory of this, the first Hebrew city, I have dedicated and donated my land — namely, Lot #109 in Central Tel Aviv land (16 Rothschild Boulevard), and the house upon it – to be forever the home of the artistic and cultural entreprise, the Tel Aviv Museum.”
Meir Dizengoff passed away in September 1936. He bequeathed his home to the Tel Aviv Municipality, noting in his will:
“My final request from the residents of Tel Aviv is this: I have devoted the greater part of my life to this city, and now, as I bid you farewell, I am handing over for safekeeping my cherished endeavor and pet project, the Tel Aviv Museum. Take good care of it, for it holds much promise, and is destined to bring much glory and honor to our city.”
In its first year of operation, the Museum ran without either a chief curator or a director. Still, that year it held a number of events, including an Autumn Exhibition of Eretz-Israeli artists and a solo exhibition of the works of Reuven Rubin.
In 1933, Dr. Karl Schwarz, an art historian who was then head of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, immigrated to Palestine to run the Tel Aviv Museum, at the invitation of Tel Aviv Mayor Meir Dizengoff. During Dr. Schwarz’s tenure, which lasted until 1947, he enriched the Museum’s collection with high-quality works, organized many, varied exhibitions, established a library dedicated to the history of art and cinema (“The magic lantern,” as he called it), and instigated cultural and educational activities at the Museum. In a guest column titled “What Is the Purpose of a Museum?” published in the flagship daily Haaretz on October 3, 1933, he described his vision for the Tel Aviv Museum as follows:
“A nurturing institution, from which education will emerge, reflecting the artistic development in other countries; where one can study the works of the country's great artists; [and] which fosters and provides for artists living and working in the country – a place where new ideas are given impetus. That is what the Tel Aviv Museum should be.”
On Friday, May 14, 1948, the state of Israel’s Declaration of Independence was proclaimed at the Museum building at 16 Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. This historic event also marked the start of a new chapter in the Museum’s history.
In 1947, art critic Dr. Paul (Pinchas) Landau summed up the change that had occurred in the status of the Tel Aviv Museum over these years, as follows:
“The Museum, which began with a lamentably small number of loaned or bequeathed artworks, has, in the past decade, turned into an impressive display of contemporary painting and sculpture. ... If one adds to this the large, enlightening special exhibitions that offer more extensive samplings of a particular artistic domain, as well as the chamber concerts,
...the impression is that this is truly an institution dedicated to the Muses, and serves as the most important asset of our artistic life.”
The country’s first decades following independence were also the years for the Museum to consolidate its place and status. During those years, it moved from its temporary accommodation to a permanent residence. Having started out in a private residence converted into a public building, it moved, with all its exhibits and offices, to a designated building, specifically designed and constructed for this purpose — the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, inaugurated in 1959 in the city’s Cultural hub. Initially, the pavilion was going to replace the Dizengoff House as the museum’s main residence. Soon, however, it became clear that the location did not allow for a large enough building. It was thus decided, in 1964, to erect the Museum’s Main Building on Shaul Hamelech Boulevard. This building was inaugurated twelve years later, in 1971.
The Museum’s collection continued growing during those years, thanks to donations of entire collections and of individual works from Israel and around the world, with particular emphasis on Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art. When the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion opened in 1959, its first exhibition — “The Museum Presents Itself” — displayed the rich diversity of the Museum’s collection of works.
From the outset, the Museum operated on two parallel tracks: local and international. On the local track, the Museum provided a platform for established and emerging artists alike. In November 1948, the “New Horizons” exhibition presented a group of artists, led by Yosef Zaritsky, who championed innovative ideas. The exhibition, which was a highly influential event in the history of Israeli art, reflected the central place that the Museum attained in the local art scene. Works by international contemporary artists were featured as well, for instance, a guest exhibition from the Museum of Modern Art in New York that included some of the best works from its collections in a variety of media, and exhibitions that were devoted to French and Dutch painting from various historical periods.
Prospering and Expanding, 1971–95
With the inauguration of the Main Building on Shaul Hamelech Boulevard, the Museum finally enjoyed the physical conditions worthy of a world-class museum. The building’s spacious and bright galleries enabled extensive displays of its treasures. The collection continued to expand with additional Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and modern works, as important private collections were donated to the Museum. Changing exhibitions of works by major international artists of the time, such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring, were held, sparking interest and controversy.
The Museum, meanwhile, maintained its central place in the field of contemporary Israeli art by presenting original exhibitions that offered an interpretive look at trends in local art. Such, for example, was the exhibition “The Want of Matter: A Quality in Israeli Art,” curated in 1986 by Sarah Breitberg-Semel (the Museum’s Curator of Israeli Art at the time), whose impact is felt to this day.
Israeli and International Museum, 1995 Onward
Toward the end of the twentieth century and in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the Museum’s operations were marked by increasing openness to international art. Besides impressive exhibitions of leading collections, it featured works by modernist masters — such as Fernand Léger, Pierre Bonnard, and Fauvist artists — a comprehensive exhibition of Mark Rothko’s works, an exhibition of contemporary German painting, and works by leading international contemporary artists. As part of the Museum’s spotlight on the works of major Israeli artists, such as Dani Karavan and Arie Aroch, growing attention was paid to local female artists — including seminal exhibitions by Sigalit Landau and Michal Rovner. The Museum also published many research catalogues, art-theory books, and monographs of leading artists.
In 2011, the Herta and Paul Amir Building was inaugurated alongside the museum’s Main Building, and doubled the exhibition space available to the institution. The construction of the Amir Building had been initiated and promoted by the then Museum director and chief curator, Prof. Mordechai Omer.
Suzanne Landau, Director and Chief Curator from 2012 to 2018, took advantage of the Museum’s renewal and physical expansion to realize certain important initiatives. These included the establishment of a Department of Contemporary Art, renewal of the Museum’s permanent exhibitions, and establishing art-acquisition groups – whose members are from the Friends of the Museum group and other supporters — to facilitate proactive purchasing. In addition, a large renovation project of the Main Building was begun, and the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Family Experiential Center was constructed. This center’s purpose is to coordinate the Museum’s extensive art-education activities, and it intended to continue growing and expanding over time. It features a large gallery for family-oriented exhibitions, spacious art workshops, a lobby for gatherings and organization of tours and Museum events, and more.
During Ms. Landau’s directorship, the Museum held solo exhibitions of many international contemporary artists, most of whom exhibited for the first time in Israel. These included Vik Muniz, Jeff Wall, Michaël Borremans, Anri Sala, Marina Abramović, and Louise Bourgeois. In 2018, the exhibition “Modern Times” presented works of the great masters of Impressionism and Modernism and drew unprecedented crowds.
In 2017, as part of the Museum’s expansion process, it was decided to separate the position of Director from that of Chief Curator. Susanne Landau, who, like most of her predecessors, had served as both Director and Chief Curator, continued to serve as Director, while Doron Rabina was appointed Chief Curator. In 2019, Tania Coen-Uzzielli took over as the new Director.
Now in its ninth decade, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art continues to play a major role in the Israeli art scene. Its rich and comprehensive local art collection continues to expand and serves as a focus of vibrant art activity. As a dynamic and multidisciplinary cultural center, it offers a wide range of educational and cultural activities, and instigates and hosts unique projects that draw the general public. In doing so, it presents a meeting place and point of connection between local and contemporary international art. All that from a place of profound commitment to the art community and the public at large. The Museum is internationally acclaimed and with over one million visitors a year, it is in the top hundred most-visited museums in the world.
Museum directors over the years
|1933–1947||Dr. Karl Schwarz|
|1962–1976||Dr. Haim Gamzu|
|1995–2011||Prof. Mordechai Omer|
|Since 2019||Tania Coen-Uzzielli|