Finding excellence in Israel’s artists

Dancer Emanuel Gat is one of 38 artists hand picked by the IcExcellence foundation.Rachel Marani is the first to admit that she doesn’t make life easy for artists. Joining the non-profit foundation, IcExcellence (the Israel Cultural Excellence Foundation) brings clear …

Dancer Emanuel Gat is one of 38 artists hand picked by the IcExcellence foundation.Rachel Marani is the first to admit that she doesn’t make life easy for artists. Joining the non-profit foundation, IcExcellence (the Israel Cultural Excellence Foundation) brings clear benefits, but the artists, whether they are painters, musicians, dancers or fashion designers, must put in a great deal of effort, not just to their creative work, but also to the business side of affairs.

It’s worth it, however. Since the organization was founded six years ago, many of the 38 artists involved have found fame and fortune, and none of the hand-picked few, which include names like Etgar Keret, photographer Adi Ness, choreographer and dancer Emanuel Gat, musician Shlomi Shaban, fashion designer Mirit Weinstock and conductor Gil Shohat, have any intention of dropping out.

Marani started IcExcellence, (pronounced ‘I see excellence’), which offers artists tailor-made programs designed to advance their careers, as a way to bring Israeli artists the recognition she felt they so richly deserved, but often seemed to be lacking.

She came up with the idea when she was working as the cultural attaché at the Israeli embassy in Washington DC. She was in charge of the 50th anniversary celebrations in Washington, organizing 365 events, one for every day of the year, at locations like the Kennedy Center, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian.

“We brought hundreds of artists from Israel to Washington and it gave me an opportunity to see how unique they were,” she tells ISRAEL21c. “People kept asking me how it was possible they didn’t know about them in regular times. Israeli artists are great, but so few of them are well known and on the first line of artists.”

Marani returned to Israel and carried out an extensive survey of Israel’s art scene to try to discover what was missing. She explored cultural improvement programs all over the world in an effort to understand what could help Israeli artists. She then began raising money from private individuals, institutions and foundations in Israel and abroad.

What makes IcExcellence so unusual in the realm of art and culture globally, is the inspiration it takes from the business world. Aside from programs designed to advance artistic achievements, the artists also take part in a business skills program to develop their professional careers.

There is business coaching, management training, language study, professional courses, branding, and mentoring from leading business consultants. Some of the artists are sent to study abroad, others are taught to set up websites, or take part in international conventions.

“We want to allow them to expand their ability, and progress,” says Marani. “Artists may be strong in the arts, but when it comes to running a business, it’s definitely not their field. And some have to be real managers. A good dancer will become a choreographer, then he needs a dance ensemble, and all of a sudden he’s a manager. It’s the same for a pianist, or a violinist, who suddenly finds himself in charge of an orchestra.”

“Eighty percent of their time is occupied with issues that are weaknesses, not strengths,” she adds. “It’s a pity.”

InExcellence’s programs are all tailor-made for the individual artists. “What a musician needs is different from what a painter needs,” explains Marani, who is now the managing director of the foundation.

Marani stresses that it does not offer scholarships. “We are providing support programs that will benefit the artists for years to come, not on a day to day basis.”

Nor does it accept applicants. Artistic advisory committees choose the best artistic talent from 11 fields. “You can’t apply for this. Our board locates and chooses the best artistic talents,” she explains. “It’s a big process to get into the foundation. We look not only at the art, but also the leadership, motivation and ambition of the artists. We only want people who want to be the best.”

Originally, when the foundation started work it aimed to create three-year programs. Once the first group finished, however, the artists appealed for more time. These artists have now been with IcExcellence for five years.

The artists themselves have nothing but praise for IcExcellence. “I never imagined how significant the presence of IcExcellence would be in my life as a creating and performing artist and as a music director,” says Yaron Gottfried, a conductor and composer. “The foundation’s true greatness and success is its original, creative way of working, and its approach to the complex personality of each and every artist.”

Gottfried, who has been with IcExcellence for four years, admits that he owes some of his most significant experiences to the foundation, including a month-long stay at the MacDowell Colony, the oldest artists’ colony in the US, where he wrote a new composition, and participation in an international convention for symphony conductors in Boston.

“The foundation doesn’t pamper you; quite the opposite,” says Adi Ness, who is now winning worldwide acclaim for his photographs. “It forces you to make a lot of effort early on, to draft your request, to explain to yourself and the foundation what’s important to your career.”

“Today, the artists clearly understand our vision,” says Marani. “They know they have to get out of the studio and make something happen. There’s been a clear change in Israel following our activities.”

The organization is now expanding its work in Israel and abroad, and aims to begin offering educational seminars for Israeli artists in Israel, Berlin and New York. “We realize we have amassed an astounding body of knowledge in the field of empowering artists. We want to share this knowledge and give artists some extra tools to fulfill their greatness and potential,” says Marani.

In the meantime, the foundation is also creating a great deal of interest worldwide, amongst organizations interested in trying to replicate IcExcellence’s unique success.

For Marani, however, IcExcellence is more than just about art, or even a desire to help Israeli artists reach their potential. “The aim is to make people clearly identify between cultural excellence and Israel,” she says. “Just as people go to London or Broadway to see great theater, so I hope they will come to Israel to see great art and culture. Art and culture can reach so many people beyond words. It’s Israel’s hidden asset.”

The impact is already being felt, she says. “We are beginning to win first prizes in festivals all over the world, in film, dance and music. I think in five to 10 years from now, there will be a big revolution. The artists want it. They know how difficult it’s going to be, but they want to do it, and this is a huge transformation.”

About Nicky Blackburn

Editor and Israel Director, Nicky Blackburn has worked extensively as a journalist and editor both in Britain and Israel for a range of national and international publications including The Cambridge Evening News, London News, Travel Weekly, Israel High Tech Investor, and The Times of London. She was the Associate Editor at LINK Israel’s Business and Technology Magazine, and the High-Tech Correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.