Interview with Vardit Gross, Director of Artport Tel Aviv

.ART speaks to Vardit Gross, Director of Artport Tel Aviv - a leading contemporary art centre, home to Israel’s most prestigious residency program.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that artist residencies are a trendy, new phenomenon, owing to globalization and artists’ nomadic lifestyle, but the truth is that these programs have a rich and longstanding history. 

The first wave of AiR – artist in residence – programs as we know them emerged in the 1900s. Art-loving philanthropists in the UK and US saw the act of offering guest studios to artists as a new kind of romantic patronage. During this time, artists settled in the countryside, collectively trying to make their artistic ideas come to life. An example of such a community is the artists’ colony at Worpswede, a small village near Bremen, which was founded in 1889 by artists Heinrich Vogeler and Rainer Maria Rilke (among others). Worpswede soon managed to attract international attention, so much so that it was renamed to ‘Weltdorf’ (world village). In 1971, the colony was given a revived boost with the founding of Künstlerhäuser Worpswede, which has grown into a well-known residential art centre.

A new wave of AiR programs emerged in the 1960s. This model of residencies gave artists the chance to withdraw from a society that was considered bourgeois. Here, they could create their own utopia in seclusion. In the 1970s and 1980s, AiR programs were keen to involve the public – guest studios in villages and cities served as bases for social and political change. The 1990s saw an enormous proliferation of new residency initiatives, this time no longer confined to the West. Residential art centres, especially those in non-western countries, functioned as catalysts in local contemporary art scenes – they became indispensable for connecting the local scene to the global art world.

Cheap travel and the internet have undeniably aided the popularity of AiR programs. For many artists and curators, these opportunities are indispensable to their careers. Over time, AiR’s quality standards have improved and application procedures have become more competitive. New residency models emerged once again and various forms of hospitality were explored – such as nomadic projects, collaborative residencies, research-based residencies, and interdisciplinary workshops. 

Today, it is common for artists to look for the unfamiliar closer to home. Artists organize programs in their countries, towns, and even on their own streets – which is highly apt given the current state of the world.

.ART spoke to Vardit Gross, Director of Artport Tel Aviv. Artport was founded in 2011 and is a leading contemporary art centre, home to Israel’s most prestigious residency program. Based on the belief that art and artists are integral to society, Artport is home to artists at pivotal stages in their professional development. At the core of Artport is the residency program for Israeli and international artists and curators. With the help of activities like conferences, lectures, exhibitions, professional workshops, and an annual art book fair, Artport serves the general public and the local art community, building relationships between art and society at large.

Vardit, could you tell us a bit about the Artport Residency Program? How has it changed over the 9 years of its existence, and what is your vision for its future?

Artport first opened its doors 8 years ago in south Tel Aviv as a residency program for Israeli and international artists. It was founded (and is fully funded) by Jason Arison, Chairman of the Ted Arison Family Foundation. Based on the belief that art and artists are integral to society, Artport is home to artists at pivotal stages in their professional development, helping support the creation of new art. 

While it mainly started as a residency program, Artport grew into a lively and busy independent art centre. It is now home to a non-profit gallery, an annual art book fair, artist talks, lectures, professional tools workshops, and much more. We are hoping to continue to grow and come up with more ways to strengthen the art community and empower artists.

What is at the core of the residency program?

Six Israeli artists enter the residency for a period of one year. During that year, the artists get a studio and a monthly stipend. They also get to participate in weekly meetings, art tours, studio visits, and workshops. We spend a lot of time together not only talking about art, but also cooking, playing ping-pong, and thinking about each other’s work. It’s a small community that is a part of the bigger Artport alumni community. Alongside the Israeli program, we have an international program where two artists or curators visit Israel for a 2-3 months. They join our activities and contribute their insights, unique way of thinking, and professional networks.

How does Artport help connect artists and curators to the locale? 

Artport is essentially a hub for Israel’s creative community, where artists, curators, thinkers and other creatives meet and network. Aside from our gallery, we are home to a magazine and article reading group and host many other meetings centered around various subjects. A few years ago, we started running Israel’s first Artist Book Fair, and have supported publishing artists’ books since. We also present Israeli books at various international art book fairs around the world.

Artport recently changed locations. How did you find it and what made you want to move there?

Our previous location, where we remained for five years, was in a container compound in south Tel Aviv. It had a large outdoor space where we hosted many events. Sadly, this magical compound was demolished to accommodate real estate developments. It took us two years to find a new home. We reopened in a three-story building which is in the heart of the south Tel Aviv art scene; an industrial area home to artists’ studios and galleries as well as small industry and old shops. We love being closer to the art scene and enjoy the swarm of visitors gallery hopping on the weekends. However, what really sold this location was the building itself, with its beautiful gallery space, relaxed rooftop, and fun balcony by the common area.

You recently changed your domain address to a .ART. Do you think the digital space is as important as the physical one?

Even though Artport is mainly all about meeting people and working in the studio, the digital space is super important as that’s where most people get to meet us. Since we are based in Israel, we are aware that our website is the first, and often the only, way that the international art world can get to know us. As I’m answering these questions at a time of an international pandemic, the importance of the digital space is made even clearer. Digital is where everything happens these days – from artist talks to exhibitions, from schooling to parties. Although I do hope that the current situation will change soon, I believe that we will continue to experience and consume more and more content and social interactions online.

Let’s get back to the question regarding the local art community. What are the dynamics and tendencies that you’ve noticed within the Israeli art scene, and how do you interact with them?

The Israeli scene is a pretty small one and I feel lucky to stay out of its politics. As a nonprofit with full private funding, we aren’t competing on the same resources as everyone else. We believe in joining forces and try to work with other art organizations and collaborate on various projects. On a personal level, I didn’t go to art school in Israel so I’m not a part of any of the different cliques.    

Do you collaborate with other international residency programs and art institutions?

We have a few residency exchange programs with similar organizations around the world, among them are MeetFactory in Prague, Hyde Park in Chicago, and Basis in Frankfurt. We’re lucky to have close relationships with curators and directors of many other residencies; our conversations are the best source of education. I often joke that residencies had become my hobby – whenever I travel I make the point of trying to visit them and talk with the people who run them. It might not come as a surprise that most of us deal with similar issues, but it is amazing to see how we often come up with the same solutions!

Finding the right match between the host and resident artist or curator is key. What kind of artist and curators are you looking for? What is your advice to artists and curators who want to go to Israel?

We look for energetic, independent, and smart artists who are ready to come to Israel and try something new. People who are open to new experiences and have an interest in getting to know a new place and its culture. At the moment, we haven’t got an open call for international artists. However, we are considering site-specific applications and try to support people who have research projects in Israel.

How do artist residencies impact an artist’s career, and why are they important?  

Artist residencies can be quiet places to think, create, and contemplate. They can also be super social, with plenty of networking opportunities. Both are important to artists at different times in their careers. Artport tries to be both – it gives artists a studio and a monthly stipend which lets them concentrate on making art. At the same time, we have many studio visits, group meetings, and lots of daily social interactions. Being an artist can be a very lonely experience and we look for people who are open to these kinds of interactions.

I believe any artist can gain something from a residency, depending on their needs and their stage in their career. It’s important to choose one that is right for you but also, let yourself be surprised! Surprises are what make residencies so magical; when unexpected interactions, projects, ideas, and people are borne without a plan. 

You have a Master’s in Interactive Telecommunications from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and you’ve researched the sphere of digital art. What, in your view, is the biggest problem with digital art?

I come from the digital art world but with time I grew disappointed with what it had to offer. I feel that people often use technology to showcase their existing art, but don’t re-evaluate the advantages that technology can offer us.  However, I’m answering this email after a few weeks at home due to the coronavirus, and I think that all of us have been re-evaluating the digital world and what it has to offer. I’m excited by some of the new opportunities and look forward to seeing whether the new intimacy that’s developed in online meetings will be translated to good, challenging art.

Vardit Gross. Photo by David Adika

In one of your lectures, while referring to digital art, you mentioned that “just like with your lovers: the things that made you fall in love with them originally, the exact same things will eventually drive you crazy”. What do you think those things are? Do you find characteristics like “immersive, cutting-edge, intimate, interactive, innovative” problematic?

I read about these characteristics endlessly in press releases – Immersive, Interactive, Innovative, etc. The problem is that they represent pretty much the same project, which for me isn’t really about digital art – blown-up images of artworks, usually reacting to hand movements or photographing your image and manipulating it (I am always amazed by how much people love having their pictures taken!). I do hope that a new understanding of digital art will bring a change over there as well – I would love to have a real immersive, interactive and intimate experience, and I really appreciate the artists who are successful in doing this.

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Daria Kravchuk
Daria Kravchuk
is a curator and art manager with an MA in Museology from Amsterdam University. Her international projects are focused on the intersection of contemporary art, architecture, urban planning and anthropology. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.