The integration of artists within Jewish communal organizations is the ultimate win-win situation.
by Patricia Eszter Margit
At the risk of being accused of schadenfreude, I was heartened by news of the closure of the Foundation of Jewish Culture. As the founder of Art Kibbutz, I find myself at the epicenter of a global Jewish cultural renaissance. Now, more than ever, Jewish artists the world over want to create a community without borders and engage with their identity in wholly new ways. The shuttering of the FJC demonstrates that its funding structure and mission statement was unable to respond to these new realities.
The moment has arrived for a radical overhaul of the concept of a Jewish cultural organization. The moment has arrived for Art Kibbutz.
A Jewish author from Hungary whose first novel, The Jewish Bride, became an instant bestseller in Europe, I was inspired to found Art Kibbutz in 2010 in an effort to recreate the East European Jewish counter-cultural scene I inhabited before coming to New York in 2010.
Art Kibbutz was a natural extension of my life. Upon arriving in New York, I developed camaraderie with hundreds of artists, the major Jewish arts organizations and exciting new grassroots projects. Fellow artists regularly reached out to me looking for space to stay, a community, and Jewish inspiration. I was surprised to learn that while there are 1500 artist communities in the world, none of these artist colonies are Jewish.
I established Art Kibbutz to address that lack but answering that call has been financially challenging.
In the course of my adventures in fundraising, both donors and artists expressed their frustration over the current funding structure that has been investing millions of dollars on honing the professional development, marketing and networking skills of a select very few artists. The critique I often heard was that outmoded organizations were operating on the cultural industry’s star-worshipping ethic instead of funding brave new art by relative unknowns. Understandably, perhaps, they wanted to go with a known entity, but to their detriment, they missed the truest calling of a patron: supporting the creation of vital and important new art.
Identifying a great profusion of creative outpouring by unknown artists, I decided to launch Art Kibbutz with minimal funding. In so doing, I was inspired by the Jewish Art Salon, Jewish Plays Project, Shpiel, LABA, Punk Jews, the Association for Jewish Theatre, Avoda Arts, Storahtelling, Homebase and other projects.
Over the past three years, more than 600 professional artists of all ages, backgrounds, disciplines and affiliations joined Art Kibbutz’s mailing list from every continent. They signed up for our unique mission: creating a home, workspace and community of Jewish artists to produce high quality, surprising and inspiring Jewish art. They are helping to energize countless diverse Jewish communities through their own efforts.
Well-intentioned people have warned me that creating an artist colony is too costly and that others have tried and failed many times. Others have generously offered invaluable advice. Jumpstart‘s Shawn Landres and Joshua Avedon urged us to create a sustainable and balanced business model with a strong earned revenue component, building on already existing opportunities. I began asking around and found out that even in this high-rent city, there is a great deal of available real estate space. This past summer, we created our first residency at a donated, temporary space at the beautiful Eden Village Jewish camp on a minimal budget. Our program was affordable, based on a gift economy system and the artists gave generously. Almost everyone paid something, and those who paid less volunteered more or donated artwork, several of them were left behind for the local community. We used crowd-funding sources and networked online. This is the start-up mentality, innovation and enthusiasm that I think is key to any cultural organization’s success today.
Donors I’ve encountered care about creating conversation among diverse constituencies. They desire Jewish engagement, inspiration and innovative programs built with modest budgets.
My experience over the past three years has taught me that the combination of being innovative yet “hungry” is a winning combination. There is no more compelling energy than start-up energy. Cultural endeavors that are hungry often have the broadest communal reach.
It is my belief that the Foundation for Jewish Culture failed, in part, because it had become too well fed and out of touch with the compelling energy of the hungry start-up that is reflective, ultimately, of the artists themselves.
I also believe that they and other well-intentioned Jewish organizations – both communal and cultural – fail because of their myopia. One of our advisory board members, Shira Dicker argued, that in the new global landscape, a successful cultural organization must have a worldwide focus … and sensibility. This perspective is most important where Jewish culture is concerned because outside of America (and even within America), culture is one of the best portals for Jews in search of community. Our first project, the global Shofar Flashmob that Shira initiated, was a surprisingly huge success: had 20 international locations with 500+ participating artists and over 51,000 in audience via Youtube.
If you doubt this, take note of how Jewish artists have shaped the lives and affiliation of hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world – many of whom are too assimilated to set foot into a synagogue, a Jewish camp or board a plane for a Birthright trip. Where Jewish programming is unable to penetrate, artists take the lead as opinion-leaders and public intellectuals.
Growing up under Communism in an assimilated family with an avant-garde filmmaker and a journalist, my first connection to Judaism was through the portal of culture. My Jewish connection was Stranger among us, Woody Allen, Lou Reed, Paul Auster, Klezmatics and John Zorn. It is hard to put the achievements of these New York Jewish artists into neat outcome measurement indicators, especially when it comes to shaping Jewish identity, but I know from first-hand experience that their art worked its magic on many of us in Europe who were hungering for a sense of Jewish connection.
While I support investing money into the young generation by providing them with first-hand, authentic Jewish “experiences”, I would argue that it is even more important to invest money into Jewish artists who have a critical role in shaping the public discourse. What is at stake here is the articulation of experience.
David Y Chack, founder of ShPiel and president of the Association for Jewish Theatre expressed his disappointment that the current funding structure doesn’t allow Jewish artists to dream, to tell their story, to explore their identities, and to creatively journey into their imaginations. ‘How can Jews be told not to dream?’ he wondered.
In founding ArtKibbutz, I was motivated most by Chack’s plaintive question. More than anything, I wanted to create an entity where Jewish artists might dream. To my mind, there is no better dream factory than the residential artist colony.
Since the seventies, artist colonies have placed greater emphasis on collaboration then on solitary work, and often promoted new approaches to environmental stewardship, community building and serving as catalysts for social change. Typically, artist-in-residence not only engage the public by presenting their work or doing workshops, but also involve their local communities in experimenting together in art-making.
Adopting a collaborative approach has contributed to the success of Art Kibbutz, indeed, I strongly suggest that Jewish art organizations engage schools, museums, Jewish camps, synagogues, social justice, environmental and other nonprofit organizations. As artists are visionaries, compelling communicators and conceptual explorers, they can help the Jewish community reconnect to the ecological, cultural, social and economic communities that we live in.
Art Kibbutz residents have expressed interest in giving back to the Jewish community by volunteering as an exchange for workspace, one of the most important things that they desired. We worked out a program that will match artists with ‘empty spaces’ at Jewish organizations that need a boost of energy and creativity. Several synagogues, community centers, museums and Jewish camps have reached out to us to participate in our programs. I am convinced that not only will this collaborate help artists; it will lead to the revitalization of local communities as well.
The integration of artists within Jewish communal organizations is the ultimate win-win situation.
As Art Kibbutz is presenting an entirely novel paradigm, I am especially grateful to those funders who had the courage to support Art Kibbutz in its early phase. The Schusterman Foundation’s ROI and the Natan Cummings Foundation especially made a difference.
We didn’t give in to the standard funding pressures in the Jewish start-up world: to mass-produce quick results, to focus on emerging artists and to neglect a constituency aged over thirty-five years. Internationally known artists, such as Jackie Brookner, Gary Shteyngart, Arnon Grunberg, Natan Englander, Helene Aylon, Tobi Kahn, Mierle Ukeles, Frank London, Beryl Korot or Steve Reich expressed interest in participating in our programs. It would be a shame to leave them out because of the currently existing funding structure.
Art Kibbutz is looking to fill the void with more Jewish content and a real community. From our experience it is clear that there has to be a new funding structure for Jewish arts that aligns values of funders with that of the relevant organizations. Perhaps a new funding collective of different Jewish art and cultural initiatives should be formed. This should be based on innovation rather than established practices. The only way to succeed is through sharing resources and forming partnerships.
Though I hope that Art Kibbutz attracts funding to put wind beneath the wings of our programs, I hope we never lose the thrill of our hungry start-up days. In the spirit of collaboration and problem solving, I would like to invite everyone who cares about the future of Jewish arts and culture to attend Art Kibbutz’s first global conference, to be held in New York this winter. Please visit artkibbutzny.org for information and feel free to lend your voice – and talents – to this great collaborative process.
Patricia Eszter Margit is the Founder of Art Kibbutz.