Unabashed ‘Exhibitionist’s new memoir unveils his days and nights in the museum

Karl Katz writes revealing book about 60-year career planning and growing major cultural institutions in US and Israel

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Karl Katz (Courtesy)
Karl Katz (Courtesy)

You may not have heard of Karl Katz, but you probably know the many museums in the United States and Israel he helped create and shape. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the International Center of Photography, The Jewish Museum, The Museum of Tolerance, The Israel Museum, The Tower of David Museum, Beit Hatfutsot and other major cultural institutions have all benefitted from Katz’s lifelong drive to make museums come alive for their visitors.

The octogenarian Katz recently published a memoir, “The Exhibitionist: Living Museums, Loving Museums,” tracing his professional journey from New York to Israel and back again over six decades as he established and developed his career in the select museum world. Thanks to a combination of luck, timing and Katz’s willingness to take on considerable challenges, he constantly found himself in the right place at the right moment to make something new and exciting happen.

In a recent conversation with The Times of Israel, Katz admitted that it was somewhat easier in his day than in today’s competitive world for a young person to advance and succeed in the museum and exhibition design field.

“They are kind of a rarefied field, museums and design. There are a number of paths you can take in order to present the ideas that you want to. It depends on who is calling the shots…You’ve got to satisfy yourself and you’ve got to satisfy the people who are hiring you to do the museum. It’s a tough field,” Katz said.

'The Exhibitionist' by Karl Katz (The Overlook Press)
‘The Exhibitionist’ by Karl Katz (The Overlook Press)

Highlights of Katz’s career in this “tough field” include founding curator of The Israel Museum, chairman for Special Projects and subsequently chairman for Exhibitions and Loans at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1971 to 1991, and founder and executive director of MUSE Film and Television, a not-for-profit company that uses film and digital media to create documentaries on the visual arts and culture. MUSE’s films include the award-winning Degenerate Art, Don’t Eat the Pictures, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and Herb & Dorothy.

A treat for museum lovers, “The Exhibitionist” is a lesson on the evolution of exhibition conceptualization, curating and design over the decades. It’s also a fascinating insider’s take on some of the major cultural, political and philanthropic figures who fueled the development of museums in the second half of the 20th century. Dealing and socializing with influential individuals such as Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, showman Billy Rose, publisher Walter Annenberg, and photographer Cornell Capa was merely all in a day’s work for Katz. “Schnorring” (the Yiddish term Katz uses for fundraising) from wealthy donors was also part of his brief.

Katz had no early plans to go into museum work. A Yeshiva of Flatbush student who preferred playing pool and hanging out on the Coney Island boardwalk to classes, he graduated high school only by the skin of his teeth. At his older brother Elihu’s urging, he enrolled in Columbia University’s newly opened School of General Studies, designed to accommodate the influx of soldiers returning to college on the GI Bill following World War II. Lacking academic direction at first, Katz finally settled on a major after sitting in on a lecture by art historian Meyer Schapiro.

That fateful decision led to a life in museums for Katz. The titles of Katz’s memoir’s chapters reflect the different roles he learned and acquired at various stages in his long career. His professional journey began as an educator at the Met for the run of an exhibition titled “From the Land of the Bible.”

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, circa 1965 Courtesy: Estate of Rolf Kneller)
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, circa 1965 Courtesy: Estate of Rolf Kneller)

From there, he continued on to become an archeologist in Israel on a fellowship from the American Schools of Oriental Research in the late 1950s. Not one to sit around, Katz used downtime during the rainy winter season to travel to Egypt, Turkey and Iran — trips that, while edifying, were somewhat risky for a young Jewish American who had just been for a prolonged stay in the new State of Israel.

When he got called back from Iran, Katz became a curator and filled in for an ailing Mordechai Narkiss, director of the Bezalel National Art Museum in Jerusalem. “By some combination of enthusiasm, arrogance, and naïvité, I convinced myself that I was ready for the job,” Katz wrote.

Within a week of Katz’s return to Israel, Narkiss was dead and Katz became acting director of the museum. Following Narkiss’ funeral, Katz received a mysterious package via diplomatic pouch from London. It was the Rothschild Manuscript Miscellany, shelf number 24, one of the most lavish Hebrew Renaissance manuscripts in existence covering 37 religious and secular works, including a prayer book, works by Maimonides, an astrological table, and scientific treatises. Word of Narkiss’ illness moved the Rothschilds to anonymously present the codex as a gift to the city of Jerusalem.

A rendering of the Beit Hatfutsot-Museum of the Jewish People’s updated Synagogue Hall. (Courtesy of Beit Hatfutsot-Museum of the Jewish People)
A rendering of the Beit Hatfutsot-Museum of the Jewish People’s updated Synagogue Hall. (Courtesy of Beit Hatfutsot-Museum of the Jewish People)

The codex arrived the day before Passover, and after all the other museum staff had gone home. Newbie Katz found himself alone and unable to open the museum’s safe, so he had no option but to take the extremely rare and valuable manuscript home with him and safeguard it for the weeklong holiday. Incredibly, he took it along to the seder he attended at a relative’s home in Tel Aviv, reading from its Haggadah section.

As Katz’s career progressed, he mastered the skill of hewing more closely to formal protocol when required, but he never lost his can-do attitude. It served him well as he soon became founding curator and a planner of the nascent Israel Museum, an opportunity for him to learn much from the indefatigable Teddy Kollek, Jerusalem mayor and Israel Museum founder.

“When I think about Teddy, I remember his work habits, his charm and his ability to really climb over obstacles. I absolutely learned a lot from him,” Katz said.

Morning breaking over the ancient walls of Jerusalem's Tower of David Museum, as Ehud Banai performed at the Sacred Music Festival (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Morning breaking over the ancient walls of Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum, as Ehud Banai performed at the Sacred Music Festival (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Another highly influential colleague was James Gardner, a celebrated, idiosyncratic British industrial and museum designer who collaborated with Katz on a number of projects, including Beit Hatfutsot, The Tower of David Museum, and The Museum of Tolerance. Katz dedicated the book to Gardner, known simply as “G” by acquaintances.

“I learned so much from Gardner and his approach to museums and his very fresh kind of way of looking at things,” Katz said.

After 13 years in Israel, Katz decided to return to New York in 1968 to become director of The Jewish Museum. The whole time he was in Israel, he had never become a citizen. He had begun to lose touch with his American identity, but he also didn’t feel like a true Israeli.

Karl Katz (Courtesy)
Karl Katz (Courtesy)

“I was lonely. I had a handful of close friends, yet most colleagues and friends were generations my senior. And the Israelis my age had had a profoundly different life experience: they had gone through compulsory military service, almost all had served in a war, and they had grown up with rationings and the constant threat of bombings. My cushy museum job made it hard for me to relate to their tough upbringing… All the years I lived in Jerusalem, I had remained insistently a New Yorker,” he wrote.

The latter chapters of Katz’s memoir, on his professional growth as a defendant of artists’ free speech, exhibitionist, photographer, filmmaker and conceptualist, reveal that his departure from Israel in 1968 did not at all signify an end to his relationship with the Jewish state. As Katz directed The Jewish Museum, worked at the Met, helped Cornell Capa found ICP, and designed other American institutions over the ensuing decades, he also flew countless times to Israel to help establish the Tower of David Museum and Beit Hatfutsot. (Katz brought his good friend Jackie Onassis as his guest for the latter’s opening on May 14, 1978. It was the former first lady’s first visit to Israel.)

“When I was in my 60s and 70s, and even earlier I started thinking about my decision to leave Israel… My brother lived in Israel and I was so jealous of his being there and raising his family there. But I would not have had the opportunities that the Metropolitan Museum and other institutions afforded me, so I don’t regret that I left,” Katz said.

“But now in my 80s I do look at the past and realize that I missed some things that Israel could have given me or I could have taken from it,” said Katz.

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