Life & Culture

The women opening up Israeli art to the world

Sarah Penguine and Michal Freedman are bringing European art collecting culture to the Holy Land


The potential of the Israeli art market excites Sarah Peguine, art consultant and co-founder of Art Source, the first and only online English language platform devoted to discovering and purchasing contemporary Israeli art. “There’s not an established tradition of creating or collecting art here, like in Europe, because the country is relatively young. And the fact that Israel is not a quiet place means artists are inspired by and deal with many issues, like the political situation, culture, and identity.”

Peguine, 36, has spent more than 15 years immersed in Israel’s contemporary art scene. Born in France, she grew up in Tel Aviv and graduated from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London before becoming the director of Dvir Gallery in Tel Aviv. Her interest in art was influenced by her family, she says. “It was both my grandmother, Mimi, who loved art, loved to paint and who had so many books about artists and art history, and my parents. They took me to museums from a very young age. My mother also worked in a gallery when I was a child, which was right underneath our building.”

In 2008, Peguine started Oh So Arty, a blog that offered an insider’s virtual guide to Israeli art. “I realised there was not enough information about the local Israeli art scene in English,” she explains, speaking via Zoom from her home in Tel Aviv, which she shares with her partner, actor and musician David Shaul and their baby daughter Louise. Back then, it was the start of the blogosphere and Oh So Arty quickly developed from a successful online resource to an art tour company, with Peguine taking Israeli and international visitors to museums, galleries and artists’ studios in Tel Aviv, before expanding overseas. Oh So Arty now connects art aficionadi with local professional guides in European cities including Paris, Madrid and Rome.

Just over ten years ago, when she was leading one of her Oh So Arty tours, Peguine met Michal Freedman, then a director of Gordon Gallery. The two women clicked and found that not only did they work very well together — Peguine would regularly bring her tours to Freedman and the gallery — but they had a shared vision for Israeli art: a desire to promote it internationally. Freedman, an American Israeli, and Peguine, a European Israeli, noticed there was something missing. “We saw a need to strengthen the connection between the Israeli and international markets,” Peguine says, representing both women as Freedman is on maternity leave. “We also wanted to democratise art, to make it more accessible and reach new people. And, as we were both active on social media, we knew the power of online platforms to convey a message.” The combination of all these factors made them realise there was an opportunity and, in 2018, Peguine and Freedman established Art Source.

Scrolling through Art Source is engaging and informative; its founders’ expertise and passion for their subject is evident in the diverse range of works available, by painters, sculptors and photographers. They include renowned names such as Sigalit Landau whose current exhibition, The Burning Sea is at the Israel Museum until mid-June and photographer Adi Nes. Nes secured a place in Israeli art history when his photograph, The Last Supper, which references Leonardo da Vinci’s painting by replacing the apostles with Israeli soldiers, was sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2005 for $102,000 and again, in 2007, for $264,000 — a record for an Israeli photograph, says Peguine. Also worth mentioning is Ilit Azoulay, who represented Israel at the last Venice Biennale. All three artists have works in private and public collections in museums and galleries worldwide. Equally significant is Art Source’s promotion of many emerging artists, such as Aviv Grinberg, Dede and Vera Vladimirsky. “I used to take a lot of tours to Vladimirsky’s studio, and we really saw her career develop. She now has a solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.” One of Vladimirsky’s photographs, a deconstructed domestic scene, is displayed on the wall behind Peguine; a gift from the artist, she admits, smiling.

But Art Source is not only an online shop. It features content about Israeli art and design through its podcast, magazine and on social media, in particular Instagram. Peguine and Freedman also offer an in-person, bespoke art advisory service and can arrange for clients to visit any of their artists’ studios, giving an invaluable opportunity for potential purchasers to speak to artists directly about their creative process. Crucially, they support the local art scene by working with galleries and with up-and-coming artists yet to be represented. “Part of our mission is to expand the circles and help our audience reach as many quality artists as possible. We have access to the work of many artists who are not necessarily on the platform.”

Peguine and Freedman have collaborated with businesses including H. Stern, the jeweller. Their biggest and most recent advisory project to date was with a newly renovated boutique hotel, R48, a 1930s Bauhaus building on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Working closely with the hotel, they were tasked with curating and selecting a collection of artworks for the hotel and garden, which included pieces by Ori Gersht, Boaz Noy and Tal Shochat. “We wanted to make the hotel a celebration of contemporary Israeli art,” Peguine explains. “We worked with the architects, a great local studio, AN+, as we wanted to make connections and add meaning to some of their architectural choices. The restoration feels like you have something very old and something luxurious and new, and we wanted to convey that in the art choices we made. It was a beautiful project, which we’re really thrilled about.”

The women have two guidelines when they select the artists they wish to work with. “The first is the quality of the work,” Peguine explains. “And then we ask ourselves, will the artist and their artwork stand the test of time? If you buy it now, will it still be relevant in five, ten, fifteen years?” As the art market is still very local, there is a glass ceiling in terms of prices, she adds. “But it’s also an advantage, and an opportunity, for our clients, because you can purchase super high quality, striking works at good prices.”

But the Israeli art scene can be a difficult one to navigate: the main issue for those not in the know is accessibility. “When people come to Tel Aviv, they don’t necessarily know where the galleries are, where the artists are located,” she says. “It’s even hard to get that information online. Places aren’t always obvious like they used to be, such as in the centre, around Rothschild and Gordon Street. The scene is shifting to the south of the city.”

There are a number of reasons for this relocation. “First of all, of course, money. It’s the rents. Prices here are crazy. So, about ten years ago, galleries started moving, following the artists like any process of gentrification really.” They gravitated to Kiryat Hamelacha, a neighbourhood whose brutalist-style buildings were originally intended for small businesses and factories and which now house artists and other creatives. The type of spaces available are more industrial and suitable for showing contemporary art, large-scale installations and videos, she says. “And it makes logistical and practical sense for the galleries because it’s close to the artists.”

We are talking during a period of increased tension in Israel, with weekly demonstrations taking place across the country against the government’s proposed judicial overhaul legislation. Has Peguine noticed any changes within the artistic community since last November’s controversial election? “They are very involved in the protests,” Peguine says. “We are as well. I’m personally worried because the first to be hurt by the situation is culture, local artists. So, we’re trying to support them as best we can, through social media, using our voice and community.”

Art and protest meet in the work of one of Art Source’s emerging artists, Nitzan Mintz. Playing with words and meaning, You Will Not Sleep (lo lishon) is a protest banner of large white lettering on a deep red background; its text is a nod to the Ten Commandments, an eleventh commandment of sorts, Peguine explains. “It feels very relevant to the current climate. The wording is open to interpretation but in its original context, Mintz intended it for both the leader of the country and for the common citizen.” The banner has since been reworked into a more intricate artwork, she says, using cement, paint and plaster, which Mintz layered on top of each other and scraped off to create various shades and textures.

But even before the current political unrest, there were signs of artistic censorship. In December 2021, a row erupted at the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art. The museum was subject to controversy when it removed a painting by David Reed from a group show at the request of the town’s mayor, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, because he considered it to be offensive to the ultra-Orthodox. Protesting against the decision, in January 2022, almost all the other 50 participating artists demanded their works were pulled from the exhibition and the museum was temporarily closed. If democracy doesn’t exist any more, there will be further incidents of artistic censorship, says Peguine. “But it’s a worse-case scenario, of course.”

Future developments for Art Source include continuing their work with private clients and collectors. “Helping them choose the perfect match.” They are keen, too, for more commercial projects. Art is a great addition to such ventures, it adds value, she says.

Considering Peguine and Freedman have access to the best of Israeli art, are the walls of their respective homes adorned with beautiful artwork? Peguine laughs, before giving a diplomatic response. “I love all the art in my home. I love art! ”

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