Navigating the art exhibition world is an art in itself, and Karl Katz seems to have been a master talent. Well-trained by the legendary Columbia University art history professor Meyer Shapiro and later mentored by Elisheva Cohen at the Bezalel Museum in Jerusalem, Katz found his niche in the early 1960s while working to bring the Israel Museum into existence. Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek identified Katz’s strength when he said, “…on some level, Karl, you’re a showman, an exhibitionist. What you really want to do is be a showman and an educator.” With that mandate, Katz successfully secured donations of art and money from the Bronfman family, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, Billy Rose, among others.
Katz’s career included curatorial or directorship stints at the Metropolitan Museum and the Jewish Museum in New York, and at the Bezalel Museum and the Israel Museum in Israel. He later worked as an independent consultant to the Diaspora Museum and the Jerusalem Citadel. (Some projects never went beyond the planning stages.) Along the way, Katz recruited talented architects and designers who are acknowledged with conceptualizing spaces to best display the archaeological or historical elements that are the bases of the exhibits. Particular credit is given to London designer James Gardner, who completely revamped the original design of the Tel Aviv Diaspora Museum. This required the capitulation of the planners, who included historian Salo Baron, poet and WWII resistance fighter; Abba Kovner, former assistant to Chaim Weizmann; Meyer Weisgal and World Jewish Congress president Nahum Goldmann. According to most reports, Katz’s vision prevailed.
After “commuting” between Israel and New York in the 1960s, Katz returned to The Metropolitan Museum in New York, where he was put in charge of temporary exhibitions. By his own account, he produced some “blockbusters,” all of which are described in fascinating detail. Here, too, personal contacts were invaluable — such as when the Greek government refused to lend antiquities for an exhibition until Jackie Kennedy Onassis got involved.
The title’s double entendre is a charming gateway into this memoir of more than fifty years’ involvement in museum exhibitions. Katz’s insider story is filled with anecdotes of convincing wealthy collectors to lend or donate valuable art; of masterminding shows to which museum board members were frequently opposed; of following leads that put him in personal risk as a Jew (including stays in Egypt Turkey, Iran); to ruefully noting that the recognition of the success of each show did not ordinarily give him the credit he felt he deserved. For art aficionados, this is a fascinating read. For the uninitiated, it is a wonderfully intimate narrative of a “go-getter” in the cultural milieu of the second half of the twentieth century.
- Reading List: Books in Museums, Museums in Books
- Nina Siegal: Novels and the Art of the Maritshuis
- My Grandfather’s Gallery: A Memoir of Art and War by Anne Sinclair