Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philadelphia arts leaders will try to help Israeli city prosper

Just a rocket's throw from the Gaza Strip, the Israeli desert town of Netivot has struggled for years with economic-development and safety concerns when missiles fall.

Just a rocket's throw from the Gaza Strip, the Israeli desert town of Netivot has struggled for years with economic-development and safety concerns when missiles fall.

Since 1997, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, under a program of U.S.-Israel community partnerships, has donated about $500,000 a year to the city of 30,000.

A new link in that partnership - to be highlighted on Monday at a conference in Netivot - compounds traditional checkbook charity with innovative venture philanthropy.

The conference will present the work of about 100 Israeli artists and showcase the best practices of Philadelphia's top cultural entrepreneurs, including the Mural Arts Program's Jane Golden and the city's chief cultural officer, Gary Steuer.

The assembly is part of a budding effort to "brand" Netivot, founded in 1956, as a cultural mecca, complete with a Golden-supervised mural for its signature water tower, visible for miles on the skillet-flat land.

The concept builds on the Negev Desert's network of artists' workshops and creative small businesses, with an emphasis on how it can grow.

About two years ago, the co-chairs of the federation's partnership committee, Sam Katz, of Philadelphia's History Making Productions, and Barry Feinberg, an investor, went to Netivot to urge that the city best known for its mix of native-born Israelis, known as sabras, and immigrants from Morocco, Tunisia, Ethiopia, and Russia, think strategically about its future.

"We looked at all these social services" being supported by Philadelphia's philanthropy, Katz said. "We said, 'That's fine, but there has to be something else.' "

The tomb of Yisrael Abuhatzeira, a Moroccan-born kabbalist rabbi known as the Baba Sali (the "Praying Father"), is a Netivot landmark that draws thousands of pilgrims annually.

Three nightclubs, seven wedding halls, and a busy shopping center attract young people from surrounding towns.

But a question remained: How to position Netivot to achieve the goal of doubling its population in the coming decade?

To help answer that question, the federation funded a Tel Aviv consultancy called Praxis to survey more than 100 entrepreneurs in and around Netivot.

"We met with the human assets of the region," said Praxis chief executive Boaz Israeli, "and asked what they have in mind when they talk about development. We realized a great potential to become a cultural center, not just a shopping center."

It seemed only natural, he said, to draw on the cultural expertise of Philadelphia, which this year began to market itself as PHL: Modern Renaissance City.

"I have been to Philadelphia and met Jane and Gary," Israeli said. "They are both very inspiring people."

Israeli said Steuer had shown that "during one of the worst economic times in America, culture can be a profit center, not just a cost center."

And Golden, he said, will "launch a mural arts project in Netivot, led by local artists . . . but with the supervision of Jane and her team."

The Netivot conference coincides with a weeklong trip to Israel by about 200 people on what the Philadelphia Federation calls "a mega-mission" to support the Jewish state.

As part of Golden's keynote address, she plans to show photographs of Family Interrupted, a North Philadelphia mural completed with the participation of Graterford Prison inmates, and Written in Wood, a design on the Old City storefront of the Center for Art in Wood.

"If [Netivot] really wants to do something catalytic, it has to do something big and embrace art-making as a social process," Golden said as she prepared for her trip. "You have to go in with like a B-12 injection. You can't go in, in like a passive way."

In a city as diverse as Netivot, she said, coming to consensus on an image for its first mural can be empowering.

"I know that a painting can never possess the power to move political worlds," she said, "but community-based public art engages people [to] tackle a lot of issues at the same time."

Steuer, head of Philadelphia's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, said his presentation to the conference would stress that many enterprises, not just the traditional nonprofit arts, need a creative workforce to be successful. Citing urban-studies theorist Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, he said cities that attract creative workers tend to prosper.

The twin goals of his talk, Steuer said, are to get people in Netivot "to think of themselves as one creative economy sector," and to inspire them.

"Their defining qualities can be innovation, creativity, diversity," he said. "But it's not my job to tell them their brand."