Mira Lapidot with Michael Gross, Tractor in the Field II, 1969-87 (detail). The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Extended loan from the Israel Phoenix Collection. Photo Laura Lachman

What I’ve learned: Mira Lapidot, chief curator of fine arts at the Israel Museum

The curator’s thoughts on discovering Renaissance art in Italy, how galleries within museums inform one another, and a fundraising sale of editions by artists close to the museum

The Israel Museum was founded in 1965, when the state was 17 years old. Although the nation had only recently emerged from an existential struggle, establishing an encyclopaedic museum was not seen as a luxury. Presenting and mediating material culture — not only Jewish, but international — was considered a meaningful thing for a young country to do. To me, that is moving and uplifting.

I enjoyed chemistry at school and I thought I might become a restorer, because I was fascinated by stories about an uncovered signature that changes an attribution, or revealing a hidden image below the surface. But as my studies progressed I realised that art history drew me more than the chemistry side of things. I began working in the museum in 1997, and am still here 22 years later.

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem was established in 1965 and now draws 800,000 visitors every year. Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem was established in 1965 and now draws 800,000 visitors every year. Photo: © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

I started my career in the youth wing, as an art educator. Like all the guides, I covered everything, and that made me learn the collection. I was always thinking about how the different galleries inform each other, how things tie together. A few years ago we acquired a piece of Danh Vō’s We the People  (below), his fragmented one-to-one rendering of the Statue of Liberty. Our piece, a part of the drapery, stands close to some ancient archaeology, which makes the work feel like a modern revival of classical sculpture. Its placing creates a trajectory from Greece and Rome to Vō.


Danh Vō, We the People, 2015. Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Danh Vō, We the People, 2015. Photo: © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

I spent a year in England as a child, and passed a lot of time making brass rubbings in churches around Oxford. I was about eight at the time and I loved it. Brass rubbing is an old-fashioned hobby, I know, but the good thing is: it makes you stay with an object for a long while.

I could try to explain why I love Whistler, but the things I love the most I have no words for

Before beginning my studies, I travelled with a friend around Italy, doing a kind of Grand Tour. I learned three lessons from seeing Renaissance art in situ. One: fresco painters were really installation artists, they thought deeply about the space where the work would be shown and the relation of the viewer to it. Two: scale is always surprising. Inevitably, works are smaller or larger than you thought, or there is something unexpected about the physicality that doesn’t come across in a book or on Instagram. Three: you know that the greats, such as Michelangelo, really are the greats after you see their work alongside the work of their lesser contemporaries. It’s not a conspiracy of art historians.

My favourite artist? Whistler is one of them. I could try to explain why, but — do you know what? — the things I love the most I have no words for.

This extraordinary place relies on private support. One of the ways we raise funds is through collectable editions. Some artists that we have worked with and are close to might generously create a 3D-piece in an edition of, say, 40, that we would sell to raise funds. High-level artists don’t do it that often — so it is a show of goodwill towards us.

Ai Weiwei, Hands without Bodies, 2017. Porcelain, life-sized (approx. 50 x 20 cm), edition of 50. Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Ai Weiwei, Hands without Bodies, 2017. Porcelain, life-sized (approx. 50 x 20 cm), edition of 50. Photo: © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

We are about to sell editions by Yinka Shonibare, Ai Weiwei, Liza Lou, Ron Arad, and Arik Levy. Shonibare created a witty take on a still life, a vase filled with flowers made from his distinctive batik fabrics. Ai Weiwei’s piece (above) is a porcelain sculpture of a handshake in beautiful celadon; he was thinking about fragile gestures of trust and power. Liza Lou made a stylised wheatsheaf, covered in her trademark beads — so rich and precious. Arik Levy created a glass-blown vase that looks like steel and seems to be part-fluid, part-solid. Ron Arad’s work is a kind of playful snake, a coil like a cobra. They are all lovely objects.

View the editions created by the artists for the Israel Museum

Anish Kapoor, Turning the World Upside Down, 2010. Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. © Anish Kapoor. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019
Anish Kapoor, Turning the World Upside Down, 2010. Photo: © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. © Anish Kapoor. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

We have a wonderful gravel garden at the museum, designed by Isamo Noguchi in the 1960s. One of the first site-specific works within the garden is a James Turrell piece that frames the sky in local stone. It stands on the periphery, like a kind of secret, and to my mind that spot is one of the most beautiful places in all Jerusalem.

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I always had the fantasy of being a specialist, but have ended up as a generalist. I enjoy working with different curators and departments, and I love the fact that the museum is a home to so many different collections and experts. So I have decided that, for me anyway, generalism is a kind of specialty.

I don’t collect art — I go home to a place where the walls are white. That surprises people sometimes, but what can I say? I have nice carpets.