When the museum was founded in 1965, it intended to launch a photography department, but had no curator and less than 100 photographs. At that time, most encyclopedic and specialty museums did not have independent photography departments separate from other mediums, like drawing and prints.
DURING THE following decade, New York photographer Arnold Newman, known for pioneering the "environmental portrait"- making the background as important as the portrait itself in photos of world figures from John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower to Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso - was constantly phoning Jerusalem's mayor Teddy Kollek, who established the museum, urging him to launch a serious photography department.
Nissan Perez, who is today the senior curator of photography, was then the staff photographer, capturing images of the paintings and sculptures. After applying for the first photography curator position at the museum in 1977, Perez was hired and sent to Rochester for the world's first curatorial program specializing in the medium, and then for another year to Paris and London, where he studied with photographers, curators, dealers and galleries.
"It was a wise decision of the museum's board and management," Perez says in retrospect of the privately subsidized study sabbatical. "In 1979, we officially opened the photography department with a program of acquisitions, collecting and research; we were [only] the fourth major museum to do this."
In an "only in Israel" moment, Perez, when he was in his first months on the job, went from department to department asking around for any photos. In the department of reproductions, a few old boxes of magazine images were slated to be discarded. In one, Perez discovered hundreds of original vintage photos from the 1920s, '30s and '40s in perfect condition, including a selection of vintage Man Ray photographs.
Today, thanks especially to the support of the Levines, says Perez, the photography department can become a true leader in the field. "The gift is fantastic as a vote of confidence for the museum and the photography department."
Next year, the Israel Museum will publish a book of the Levine collection, and in 2010 will inaugurate its new photography galleries with the collection's world premiere.