The Exhi­bi­tion­ist: Liv­ing Muse­ums, Lov­ing Museums

Karl Katz
  • Review
By – May 15, 2017

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.

Relat­ed Content

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions