American artists from Herman Melville to Mark Twain to Saul Bellow have traveled to Jerusalem looking for inspiration. But until this week, when the first-ever American Academy in Jerusalem was officially announced, there has never been a formal program encouraging artists to do so.
“To me, it was like, if Rome has an American Academy, and if Berlin has one, why shouldn’t Jerusalem have one?” said Elise Bernhardt, the president and CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, which spearheaded the new fellowship. “It’s one of the most interesting cities in the world, and one of the most complicated.”
The American Academy in Jerusalem will bring four prominent artists from a wide range of fields to Jerusalem for nine weeks beginning in October, and have them create work connected to the city’s history.
The artists include the playwright and experimental theater director David Herskovits, who will work on an avant-garde play about Yiddish theater; the African-American choreographer Donald Byrd, who will create a dance about Arabs and Israelis based on an Amos Oz story; Lynne Avadenka, a graphic artist who will make a print-oriented work about the story of Joseph as it is relayed in both the Torah and the Koran; and David Karnovsky, an New York City urban planner, who will explore ways to revitalize Jerusalem through culture.
“It’s totally thrilling to be selected,” said Avadenka. “I’ve visited Jerusalem before, but I’ve never had the opportunity to stay there for an extended period of time.”
Like all the finalists, Avadenka was initially selected anonymously by one of more than 150 American cultural institutions, including the National Gallery of Art and the Sundance Institute. She was then asked by the Foundation for Jewish Culture to devise a project that would in some way benefit from it being created in Jerusalem. By April, the applicant pool of 100 was winnowed down to five, including Avadenka. One of the winners — the video artist Barbara Hammer — dropped out at the last minute.
“I got one of these e-mails in February that said, ‘You have been selected anonymously for the American Academy in Jerusalem,’” said Avadenka, a Detroit-based artist whose often Jewish-themed work has been displayed in institutions like The New York Public Library and the British Library in London. “I was like, ‘Wow, really?’”
Avadenka said she had only a few weeks to create a specific plan for her final application. In the end, her winning idea was to create an art book about the story of Joseph at a Jerusalem print workshop. She will also be the artist-in-residence at a Jerusalem school for Arabs and Jews — “I believe it’s the only school in Jerusalem where both Jewish and Arab Israelis go to school together,” she said.
Bernhardt, the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s president, originally hatched the idea for a Jerusalem-based academy in 2008. She said she was speaking with the director of Mishkenot Sha’ananim Guest House, a mostly Israeli artist guest-residence already established in Jerusalem, when the idea came to her: “I said, ‘You should be like the American Academy in Rome! He didn’t know what that was. But I said, we’ll select the artists, and you’ll host them.”
The Foundation and the Guest House quietly devised a three-week residency last year, which included the prominent Jewish writers Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safron Foer, as well as the African-American choreographer Reggie Wilson. The program, said Bernhardt, was a success, with Wilson, for instance, having begun a dance piece about Moses that will be performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2012.
But that trial run also inspired newer ideas: a longer stay, for instance, which required Bernhardt to end its affiliation with the Guest House, since it could not accommodate such a long stay (nominees will stay in rented apartments instead). The Foundation also wanted to make sure the fellowships were open to artists of all different backgrounds, not just Jews.
“In fact,” said Bernhardt, “we’re very interested in it not being an all-Jewish cohort. You know, Jerusalem is a place that’s important to a lot of different people.” She added that while the foundation did not specifically hope for proposals addressing the Arab-Israeli tensions, she welcomed those that did, and found it almost inevitable that many artists would. “It wasn’t a requirement,” Bernhardt said of proposals with Arab-Jewish themes. “But it emerged as an interest for some people.”
Another amendment was that fellows integrate themselves into an already existing cultural venue in Jerusalem. “We say to [the chosen artists], ‘We’re not interested in you completing a project. But we look for you to work on and really engage with a partnering institution,” Bernhardt said.
Still, she expects the artists discuss or show some of their work at the end of their stay, as well as get their finished project performed at a U.S.-based institution. A good example is Moses’ dance piece, from the trial-run last year, which was recently chosen by BAM for a 2013 performance. “So you never know where these things will land,” Bernhardt said.
The Foundation estimates it will cost about $60,000 per fellow, about half of which goes to the artist’s direct costs, such as materials, housing food and transportation. The other half is for the foundation’s overheard, like publicity and staff. The foundation, which was created in 1960 to fund artistic and scholarly work promoting Jewish culture, will use much of its own pre-existing funds, as well as new donations from The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, The Laurie M. Tisch Illuminated Fund and Marc and Anita Abramowitz.
But in order for the American Academy in Jerusalem to last more than a year — all that is guaranteed, for now — Bernhardt hopes someone will donate a Jerusalem home. That, she said, is how the Berlin and Rome academies established their longevity. “We’d love to continue this,” she said. “In fact, we’d like to do it twice a year. But for that time happen we’d need a more permanent home. That’s how Berlin really got off the ground.”