Israelis renege on $20 million gift to Tel Aviv art museum

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tel aviv | Several days after Sami and Aviva Ofer announced they were withdrawing their $20 million donation to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Israeli art world was still agog over one of the biggest dramas to shake this art scene in recent years.

In February, the Ofers publicized their decision to withdraw the donation in a series of advertisements published in the country’s major Hebrew-language newspapers. Under the cynical heading “We apologize for wanting to make a donation,” the couple wrote that they refused to accept the pejorative treatment to which they felt they had been subjected by members of the public and the press, during various protests against their donation.

In mid-December, the Tel Aviv city council approved the museum’s decision to change its name to the “Tel Aviv Museum of Art named after Sami and Aviva Ofer,” in return for the donation offered by the couple. The donation would have partially covered the building cost of a new wing, which is planned to double the size of the museum.

The strong public opposition to the Ofers’ donation by other donors, city council members and private citizens touched upon several issues. These included the fact that the entire museum was being renamed after a donor whose donation would cover just under 50 percent of the projected costs of building the new wing. A suggestion was also made that the donation would be more appropriately recognized by naming the new wing alone for the donor.

Among those who publicly protested the museum’s name change was “The Front for the Liberation of the Public Sphere,” which argued that changing the name of a public institution largely financed by tax-paying citizens constituted the overtaking of the public sphere by economically powerful figures with commercial interests.

In a series of protests meant to expose what they considered to be the ridiculous nature of the name change, organization members covered lampposts, garbage pails, and other fixtures in the vicinity of the museum and city hall with paper signs bearing dedications such as “street lamp named after Sami Ofer.” In addition, several prominent museum donors had threatened to take back past donations or freeze future ones. Among them was the Rich Foundation, which has since announced it would renew its donations following the withdrawal of the Ofer donation, and Raya Yaglom, who had threatened to remove the Simon and Mary Yaglom collection from the museum.

Additional protests were voiced by city council members and members of the board of directors, who argued that they were not initially informed of all the details of the contract signed between Ofer and the museum. These details included a clause according to which the Tel Aviv Municipality agreed that Ofer would acquire the right to veto any future real estate transaction pertaining to the museum building or to the land upon which it is located.

“I feel very ambivalent about what has happened,” one prominent member of the Israeli art world told the Jerusalem Post. “Twenty million dollars is a tremendous amount of money in a country where people struggle for every dollar they can fund-raise for a museum. I think the public outrage against the donation reflected a certain kind of provincialism about the inevitable connection between money and art. Of course there are ethical issues involved, but in a country that gives so little financial support to the arts, people shouldn’t be so quick about throwing away such sums of money.”

Another art world member added he believed that the museum did its best to negotiate the terms of the donation. “It is possible, however, that the museum gave in to Ofer’s terms too easily — we just don’t know,” he said.

Both the Tel Aviv Museum and the Tel Aviv Municipality expressed their regret about the Ofers’ decision to withdraw their donation.