IcExcellence
The chosen people
 
By Aviva Lori

This is not a fund for the struggling anonymous artist, nor is it  for raw talent. Rachel Maraniīs exclusive Foundation for Cultural Excellence handpicks Israeli talents already working in their field and takes them one step further.

Rachel Marani. "There are artists who are paralyzed by the need to think further than tomorrow morning." (Reli Avraham)i

When Andzhei Vaida turned around and asked, with a challenging
half smile, "Letīs see what our young colleague from Israel has to say," Avishai Hadari froze. Then he recovered, thought for a moment, and said, "Thatīs not the way to direct a play." Vaida stopped the rehearsal and asked Hadari to come with him to the directorīs room. The student actors gave him a commiserating look. They were sure that in another moment, the Polish chapter of Hadariīs theater career would come to an end.

It didnīt happen. Vaida listened to Hadariīs comments, and didnīt hide his satisfaction with the Israeli chutzpah, although he admitted that nobody had ever spoken to him so directly. The scenario that took place in the academy for theater in Krakow three years ago, where Hadari was studying for his masterīs degree, had a happy end. On the playbill of that play, many of whose scenes were staged by Hadari, it was written: "`As You Like It,ī by William Shakespeare, under the joint direction of: Andzhei Vaida and Avishai Hadari."

Hadari is among the 21 Israeli artists who were chosen by the Foundation for Cultural Excellence. There is such a thing. A private foundation, begun three and a half years ago, which locates talented artists from various fields, and fulfills their artistic wishes, even the most bizarre, in order to nurture their artistic careers and to enable them to achieve impressive performances and exposure, mainly abroad. As opposed to other foundations, this one does not award a monetary prize. It accompanies the artist for a long period, in exchange for his or her commitment to work hard. This is an elite group that is designed for artists who have already proved their talent, burning ambition and total dedication to their art.

The founder and executive director of the foundation is Rachel Marani, the wife of Ohad Marani, the chair of Israel Refineries and former director general of the Finance Ministry. She hatched the idea five years ago, while she was serving in the Israeli Embassy in Washington as cultural attache, alongside her husband, who was a minister for economic affairs. Her laboratory was Israelīs jubilee celebrations. "We celebrated 365 events that year," says Marani, "even in places that are not connected to the Jewish community, such as the Kennedy Center. There were classical and ethnic concerts and Israeli music, an Israeli film festival, artists like actors Gila Almagor and Moshe Ibgi came, there was a festival of writers and poets with Yehuda Amichai, A.B. Yehoshua and Roni Somek. A very large variety. Some of the people who were exposed to Israeli art at the time had no idea what Israel is, and what Israeli culture is. There were many amazing reactions. Both from the audience and from the critics. That year I was constantly asked: `How is it that you have such amazing talents and one doesnīt see them finding a place in international artī?"

Fired up by this experience, Marani returned from the United States in mid-2000. Her husband was appointed director general of the treasury, and she looked for a way to realize her vision. "We had returned from an
amazing stay. Diplomatic relations with America were excellent, we were welcome guests in the White House. [Former U.S. president Bill] Clinton was a true friend," says Marani
.


Obvious conclusions

 Marani was born and grew up in Rehovot with two brothers. Her father was born in Warsaw and immigrated to Israel before the war, while her mother is a native-born Israeli, the scion of a family from Safed. In the army she served in the Nahal Brigade (which combines military service with work on an agricultural settlement), and afterwards she studied literature and history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After finishing her studies, she became the spokeswoman for the Keter Publishing House, and dealt with various cultural spheres, including organizing congresses in Israel and abroad. In the early 1990s she joined her husband for a year in Boston, where he was studying at Harvard University. The couple have three sons, and live in Ramat Poleg.

"During Sukkot 2001," says Marani, "I went with my family to visit my brother Yoram at a project he had built at the foot of Masada, a hikersī camp called Kfar Hanokdim. I walked around there and didnīt believe my eyes. I wondered, how did he do something so big and successful. In the evening, my older brother Bentzi called, and said that our father had passed away. During the week of the shiva [the traditional seven-day mourning period], we wanted to let Mother rest, so we went to Kiryat Malakhi, where Bentzi had built a project of his own, a plant for the production of heavy water. I walked around there and I said to myself: `My two brothers are such wonderful entrepreneursī. And then, at the end of the week, I knew that I would take the chance."

That was toward the end of 2001. "I was joined by a group of hundreds of people who care about culture and art, people who the moment they heard came and said, `How is it that we never thought of it before?ī" Marani came to two obvious conclusions: Israel invests almost nothing in excellence (not only in art, but in other fields as well); and Israeli artists, as opposed to their colleagues abroad, despise anything that is not related to art, for example, developing a relationship with an audience, career planning and marketing oneself. "I remember that when I organized concerts at the embassy, I would ask artists from Israel to come in a suit, a tie and matching socks. I said that I knew that they had very nice clothes, but that for this specific concert, those were the appropriate clothes. And I also asked them to come two hours early, in order to think together about how to talk to the audience.

"These concerts were always of importance beyond the music, because they were attended by the heads of the budget committee, senators, members of Congress, people to whom Israel wants to show its positive side, and after the concerts, there were receptions. Part of the idea was for the artists to talk to people and create a connection with them. This came naturally to only few of the artists. Those who had spent many years abroad knew that this was part of the game. The others felt somewhat lost there."

In Israel, financial prizes are granted to young artists who are just beginning their careers, or to elderly artists for their lifeīs work. Support for outstanding artists is very rare. "In my opinion, and in the opinion of the
members of the foundation," says Marani, "the artists who have already proved themselves, but have not yet reached the pinnacle, get lost in the shuffle. Nobody really helps them." At first Marani turned ("in fear and excitement") to composer Tzvi Avni and to Ehud Manor, both Israel Prize laureates. "The moment they said `Weīre with you,ī it was easier for me to enlist others," she says. The others are Mendy Rodan, Danny Sanderson, Gabi Eldor, Danny Gottfried, Micha Levinson, Yuval Meskin, Prof. Shimon Levy, Yona Fischer, David Tartakover, Dalia Levin and others, who work on a volunteer basis and whose job it is to find the artists with potential for excellence
.

 
 
Art is a business, too

The Foundation for Cultural Excellence has a number of original and ground-breaking rules. Art is a business, too. Artists work in a competitive market. And therefore, it is important to build a long-term career for them, and to formulate a business plan. The foundation does this with the help of businessmen and personal trainers. "What is good for Eli Horowitz [the chair of Teva Pharmaceuticals]," says Marani, "is even more important for artists, who for the most part do not excel at strategic thinking beyond the next day." Moreover, one canīt approach the foundation. The foundation approaches the artists who have been found suitable
,and offers to cooperate with them
."

The foundation includes nine artistic teams, from the fields of dance, music (classical, jazz and Israeli), theater, the plastic arts, product design, graphic design and fashion design. There is also a plan to establish teams to deal with interdisciplinary art, literature, architecture and cinema. The foundationīs budget is $2 million annually, entirely from donations from private bodies, institutions and foundations in Israel and abroad, raised through the private connections of Marani and her friends. Additional volunteers in the foundation are international advisers: Haim Topol, Ron Arad, Yefim Bronfman, Ohad Naharin, Alex Giladi, Gil Shaham, Prof. Itamar Rabinowitz, Dr. Shimon Shoshani and Danny Karavan. Their job is to open doors to Israeli artists abroad.

The method of support for artists adopted by the foundation differs from the custom in other foundations. Not a cent is channeled into their bank accounts. "I call that `refrigerator money,ī" says Marani. "I donīt belittle money that the artists receive from all kinds of prizes and foundations, with which they buy items for their homes such as a refrigerator, for example, but we think that the money should be earmarked for promoting the artistīs career."

An artist who has been chosen by the foundation as a candidate undergoes a process of testing and examination that lasts for several months. "We ask them to write to us about their artistic world, and to think about
where they see themselves five or 10 years from know, and by what means, in their opinion, they will get there. There are artists who are paralyzed by the need to think further than tomorrow morning, but the vast majority try to deal with that, with varying degrees of success. At a certain stage, if things have progressed well and we reach the conclusion that they suit us, we decide together on the first project they want the foundation to support, and if the professional teams express their opinion that it is in fact a worthy project that will advance their careers, we declare them chosen artists of the foundation and the professional tie begins
."

In the ideal world created by Marani, each artist receives specially tailored support, which is not the same - neither in terms of the amount of money nor in its essence - to the support received by the other artists in
the foundation. "Since the existence of the foundation," reports Marani, "there have been only two artists who decided that it wasnīt for them. There was one artist with whom we broke off the tie after a year, and there was one who came back to us after a month and a half and said that he wasnīt interested. When I asked him why, he replied with a cynical, self-aware smile: `Because youīre taking away my right to complain
.ī"

 Director Micha Levinson believes that the image of the neglected artist is nothing but "a cliche of sentimental novels that tell us that art is created out of suffering." 
 
Isnīt there a contradiction between art and a business plan?

Levinson: "No. Artistic chaos often causes the artist to fail. In that sense, Rachel doesnīt try to prevent the artists from suffering, but to make their art more effective."

 

From Menahamia to Krakow

Avishai Hadari, 28, is the second artist located by the foundation. The first was Dan Ettinger, a conductor, Daniel Barenboimīs assistant at the Berlin Opera. Hadari was born in Menahamia near Lake Kinneret, and
studied in Tiberias. At the age of 14, he moved to Tel Aviv on his own, lived with roommates and studied at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, in the plastic arts track, although he actually was already drawn to theater. While he was studying in high school, he was a member of the Israeli youth team in the triathlon. Afterwards he studied for a year in a school for visual theater in Jerusalem, went to Europe, studied dance in Paris and in Amsterdam, returned to Israel and was hired by the Israel Opera as a stagehand
.

While he was working, he began to build sets from materials he found in the street, such as old wooden beams and wheelchairs. At the end of the process he had the set for a play - without a play and without actors. Then he began to formulate an idea. He received a bomb shelter from Tel Aviv Municipality and established a group that included 10 actors, two of them from Akim (the National Association for the Rehabilitation of the Mentally Handicapped). "I approached people in the street and suggested that they act for me," he says. "When people asked me `act in what?ī I said I was doing a play for the Acre Festival, which was not yet true at that stage."

Eight months later, and after Hadari had spent NIS 5,000 out of his own pocket, he had a troupe that performed in "Rust," the political play he had written, including three musicians who called themselves "The
Biluyim." In 1998, Hadari and his troupe won four first prizes at the Acre Festival: best production, best director, best sets and best costume design. After the festival they performed at the Habimah Theater, on a side stage at the opera, and in kibbutzim in the north. "After that came offers to work in repertory theaters," says Hadari, "but I decided I still had to study
."

His spiritual mentor was the famous Polish playwright and director Tadeusz Kantor. He had seen a video of Kantorīs play "The Dead Class," and was captivated by him. The next station was Krakow, Poland, the city where Kantor and his troupe worked. "Two weeks before the Acre Festival, I traveled to Krakow to meet with him, because I felt my play was an homage to his work," says Hadari. "I went to the theater, and the man at the entrance said to me, `Itīs very nice that youīve come, but Tadeusz Kantor died of heart failure in 1990.ī"

 

Polish lessons

After the success at the Acre Festival, Hadari was accepted for theater studies at Tel Aviv University, but changed his mind and went to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, in the hope that something of Kantorīs spirit would brush off on him. "At first I went there in the winter, to visit the friends I had met during my first visit. I thought that Krakow in winter was an amazing city, and during that trip I decided that I wanted to study there. I went to the academy and asked to register. They told me that registration begins in July, and that the studies are only in Polish." Hadari, whose parents are of Moroccan descent, took the forms, returned to Israel, began to study Polish and to find foundations that would support his fantasy. The Rich Foundation paid for his Polish language studies and the Israel-America Friendship League promised to pay for his first year of studies, if he passed the entrance exams.

Hadari succeeded. In 1999 he was accepted to the academy. In the entrance exam, he analyzed the play "Waiting for Godot," in Polish. He met Andzhei Vaida during his third year, when the maestro came to work with actors on the end-of-year production, and was looking for an assistant director. Someone recommended Hadari. "An assistant director in productions of this kind is someone who works as a messenger boy, and doesnīt really participate in directing decisions," says Hadari. "After he received an Oscar for lifetime achievement, everyone treated him like God, and he didnīt expect me, the guy with chutzpah, to tell him what I really think of his work. But one day he asked my opinion, and I told him. And he took it in good spirit, and even changed part of his philosophy, and in the end he let me stage entire scenes by myself."

When Hadari found himself in economic distress, Vaida gave him $4,000 to pay for his tuition, from a foundation that he himself had established. During his third year of studies at Krakow, Hadari was chosen as the artist of the Foundation for Cultural Excellence, which paid for the rest of his studies at the academy. Last year, he completed his studies with a masterīs degree in theater arts. In the final production he staged "The Dybbuk" in Polish, in his own translation. As a farewell gift he received a letter from Vaida: "I am writing my opinion of Avishai Hadari with pure pleasure. In all of my long life, I have never met such a talented young director. His seriousness and his life experience are amazing. The theater will benefit from a great directing talent."

 
 
What next? Commercial theater?

Hadari: "Itīs not my lifeīs ambition to work in a commercial theater. To be an in-house director is a terrible thing. Iīm looking for something else. I must do something independent, closed and small. A temple in which my creation will be protected. A holistic theater in which I will control everything - the text, the direction and the sets." But Hadari still doesnīt feel ready to do independent theater. For the time being, with the help of the foundation, he is planning to go to study at the Moscow Academy of Theater Arts. He has already begun to study Russian, and has even fulfilled the community obligations imposed on him by the foundation - a play with autistic children in a Holon kindergarten.

An end to hesitations

When plastic artist Yehudit Sasportas, 34, was chosen by the foundation in 2003, she was already a rising star and artistically mature. In Israel, she has ties to the Sommer Gallery; she has been working with a gallery in Berlin; has had solo exhibitions in Israel and abroad, and teaches at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem.

Why do you need the foundation?
 
Sasportas: "Two programs in Germany invited me for a one-year stay there. This is a place that is designed to accommodate about 18 artists from all over the world. You get a studio apartment, stay for a year, create, and meet artists and curators from all over the world who visit there regularly. Itīs terrific exposure. In Berlin you can come only if you are supported by a foundation in your country, which affirms that you are a chosen artist. The payment goes directly from the foundation to the program."

Sasportas met with Rachel Marani during a critical point in her life, at a crossroads when she had to decide whether to remain in Israel or to start working in Europe. "The people with whom I work in Berlin pressured me to come to live there. They claimed, and I agree with them, that my artistic materials are in Europe, and Berlin is today one of the most important places in the world in terms of the art scene. And if weīre talking about becoming part of the international art field, itīs essential to leave. Itīs clear that itīs impossible to think about art that is only local. But Iīm a lecturer at Bezalel, and for me these were cruel and painful questions. The meeting with Rachel made my hesitations much easier, because I didnīt have to put an end to anything. The foundation paid for the program in Berlin for a year. Recently I finished and returned to teach in Bezalel this semester. In the summer Iīll go to Berlin again to work in the studio I have there."

In addition to economic and organizational support, the foundation provides its artists with extensive emotional support. In the case of Sasportas, the fact that she wasnīt required to define boundaries and identities helped her to deal with the frequent transitions between Israel and Europe. "At the foundation, I met people in the same situation as mine, with one foot here and one foot there, who were debating in which direction to navigate their career. This was a gift. For me, it was some kind of dream that there would be such a foundation that supports Israeli artists abroad, which is no longer a dirty word."

The encounters between the foundationīs artists take place at semiannual seminars. Marani was surprised when she realized that her artists donīt know each other. Gil Shohat, 31, a composer and conductor, a well-established and successful artist, was chosen by the foundation in 2004. "I would like to emphasize a point that is not clear," he says. "We have a feeling that people of excellent achievements are not in need of support. That only the unfortunates have to be supported. Not only in culture, but in all kinds of areas, the state invests billions of dollars to support the needy. Itīs very good that they support the needy. But they forget to support those who excel. Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms and Schumann were in need of support until the day they died. We are involved in very expensive fields, especially the composition of classical music.

"If youīre cold and starving, you will not write a good symphony. Almost all the great and important composers in musical history werenīt starving. They may not have been millionaires, but they had good conditions. When I came to the foundation I wasnīt starving, either. My name is known all over the world, Iīm going to be the musical director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra starting next September. But as a creative artist, Iīm still in need of support. In this foundation, the money is only a small part of the support. In my case, for example, we did mapping and strategic planning of my international career for the coming years. This was done by first-class strategic advisers."

 What did they advise you?

Shohat: "I felt that I need another international course in conducting. Thanks to the foundation I met with Lorin Maazel, chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic, whom I consider the greatest conductor alive. The foundation organized the meeting in Jerusalem, and at the same time sent me to Paris to study conducting with [Christoph] Eschenbach and [John] Nelson. The foundation paid for the trip, and I also received help from them for building a Web site. This is a model that I believe in. They tailor their assistance to suit each person."

Stopping life in the middle

 When Adi Stern, 39, a graphic designer, was chosen by the foundation in 2002, it was a turning point in his career. He was sent to study for a masterīs degree in typography at Reading University in northern England, in the department that is considered the best in the world in this field.

"In a rare step, I had the opportunity to stop my life in the middle, to go to study, to develop new horizons and to experience tremendous creative momentum. Thatīs no small thing." After his studies, Stern won prestigious international prizes. His works are on display in Tokyo, and in poster biennales in Warsaw, Hong Kong and Moscow. In spite of this, what excites him most are the seminars organized by the foundation. "Thereīs a great deal of power in the sense of the best team, when you are among people who are of extraordinary stature, from various fields. It helped me a great deal. It empowers, opens possibilities. For me itīs a very special and wonderful framework, like the graduates of some special army unit or an elitist school."

Yaron Gottfried, 36, married with two children, a composer and conductor, was chosen by the foundation in 2003. "I had then just begun my first season as musical director and chief conductor of the Kibbutz Chamber
Orchestra. A nice job. But I had no time to sit and write. I realized that in order to write I had to get away, to go somewhere to fulfill the fantasy I had always only read about." With the support of the foundation, Gottfried left everything and went for a month to an artistsī center in New Hampshire. At the end of a month in an isolated cabin in the forest, he returned with the beginnings of new works, and a huge amount of energy
.
 
"As an artist," he says, "the foundation gives you a feeling that you donīt have go to battle alone. If I need some letter, and some of the best people in the field have signed it, that helps. Even various requests that the foundation makes in your name have an important effect. In the test of results, during the last two years I have done things that I havenīt done until now. For example, I attended a special international congress in Boston for artistic directors, which was all about conducting and directing orchestras. That is exposure to new materials and forming a network of connections. From that I have already received two invitations to conduct and perform works of mine in America. The foundation paid for that, too."
Fashion designer Mirit Weinstock, 28, a graduate of the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, was chosen by the foundation in 2003. She opened a shop two months ago, with the help of the foundation, which also paid for her rent and living expenses in Paris, for French language studies, and afterwards an internship with Israeli designer Albert Elbaz. "I came to Rachel and said: `When it comes to design, I know everything; but I have no idea how to set up a business.ī The foundation provided me with a business consultant who specializes in establishing start-ups, and he helped me to learn everything from the bottom up. For the first six months I worked with him regularly, today I work on my own."
 
"Too good to be trueī

Singer and composer Shlomi Shaban, 28, from Tel Aviv, was also chosen by the foundation in 2003. He doesnīt remember who called him. He does recall an unfamiliar voice on the phone, saying something like "I want to fulfill your dream," and he thought someone was pulling his leg. "This voice asked me to define the thing I need most in artistic terms. At first I thought there was some catch here. It seemed too good to be true. Until I met Rachel and understood that there is no catch. I remember that during that same phone conversation, I actually didnīt know what to answer. On the one hand, itīs the big question that youīre supposed to answer immediately. On the other hand, it paralyzes you. Even at the seminars they ask us those questions.

"I gave it a great deal of thought, I had to formulate a proposal in writing, and I came to the conclusion that what I lack most is greater skill in musical productions. I felt that Iīm making my way in writing and in performing, but for everything related to musical production Iīve always need an intermediary. I asked for a home studio. But they told me that a studio is property, and that they couldnīt give, so I bought a PC and basic software, I set up a home studio that enables me to make recordings, and they provided a teacher - Eldad Guetta, a musician, computer expert and friend of mine. Without the foundation I wouldnīt have done that.

"Just as important are the meetings with Rachel. Iīm a scatterbrain by nature, and I donīt make long-range plans, I live in a bubble. She sits and organizes what I have to do in the future. Itīs a very interesting process, which has helped me. One could say that she has changed my professional life. Thanks to the foundation, Iīm suddenly doing things faster, and I feel more goal-oriented. In the near future Iīm going to perform with Assaf Amdursky and Eran Zur, and Iīm working on my next recording. In my opinion, the greatness of the foundation lies not in the money, but in the questions that they make you ask yourself. The seminars, the meetings with other artists. Iīve met amazing people, not necessarily in my field, and Iīve seen that they have the same conflicts as I do. Itīs comforting and very useful to know that your disease has a name. And when it has a name, it can be cured."

Next month the Israel Festival begins. At the opening event, there will be a performance by the Clipa Theater, which was chosen by the foundation in 2003. Idit Herman, 33, founded the troupe in 1995 together with Dimitri Tulpanov, and at present it includes 12 dancers who create visual-movement theater.

Herman asked the foundation to enable her to spend long periods abroad in order to cooperate with artists from other countries. During the first stage, the foundation supported a round of performances by her and Tulpanov in Japan. "But they allowed us to stay longer," says Herman, "to meet artists and to undergo a process, particularly with one of the artists we had met when he came to Israel with Sankai Juko. It was amazing. As a result of this cooperation, we are opening the Israel Festival with the Japanese artist."

Fashion designer Claudette Zorea and illustrator Rutu Modan were chosen as foundation artists for 2005. In the coming days they will be joined by photographer Adi Nes, whose photograph "The Last Supper" (featuring 14 Israel Defense Forces soldiers in uniform seated around improvised army tables) was recently sold at Sothebyīs for $102,000.           

 

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