This spring and summer, a bit of elegance from Florence, Italy, will enjoy an extended visit in Bucks County when a selection of 45 renowned paintings and tapestries from the storied Uffizi Gallery will come to the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown. Works by such Renaissance and Baroque masters as Sandro Botticelli, Lorenzo Monaco, Cristofano Allori, and Il Parmigianino will be at the Michener, all part of the traveling exhibit “Offering of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi,” on view from Saturday, April 21, through Friday, August 10.
The exhibition will be supplemented with seven Italian Renaissance paintings from the John G. Johnson Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the best known Renaissance collections in the United States.
Curated by the director of the Uffizi, Antonio Natale, with consulting curators, professor Marcia Hall from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and Diane Cole Ahl, professor of art history at Lafayette College, “Offering of the Angels” examines classical art as an expression of spirituality.
As with all of its exhibitions, the Michener will offer a series of special events and gallery talks, including an interfaith panel and conversation, Sunday, May 6. There’s even an afternoon of Italian opera presented by Philadelphia’s Academy of the Vocal Arts, Sunday, June 10.
“Religion is a sensitive subject in the United States and we wanted to be sensitive, so we started early on to make this exhibit accessible and interesting to people of all religious backgrounds,” says Bruce Katsiff, director of the Michener Museum. “We organized this interfaith council of rabbis, priests, ministers, and representatives of Muslim and Buddhist faiths, a broad cross section of people, to get together.”
This group will work with museum staff to develop interpretive content,and to help visitors explore the idea of redemption through the lens of multiple religious and spiritual viewpoints. The museum will serve as a neutral space where faith communities can come together to learn about each other and find common ground. “Even atheists can find aspects of the exhibit they would want to explore,” Katsiff says.
The works from the Uffizi embody the diversity, stylistic evolution, scale, and technical mastery of art from Italy and Northern Europe over nearly 400 years and represent a survey of European art at an important moment in its history. The artists in this exhibit were essentially employed by the church and created work that illustrated official doctrine — work that was to be placed in churches to influence the faithful.
“The basic notion is that, for thousands of years, art was in service to religion,” Katsiff says. “In Egyptian times, it was done to glorify the Pharaoh, and we see that the Pharoah was portrayed as a god-like figure. Fast forward to Greek times and think of their sculpture of the Greek gods. It’s art in service to religion. You see the same thing in Roman times.
“This reaches its zenith in the Italian Renaissance, between the church and wealthy patrons,” he continues. “It’s important to remember that the liturgy was in Latin and most (of the faithful) don’t speak the language, so pictures were the only way to illustrate these religious stories.”
“Offering of the Angels” traces the life of Jesus, with such masterpieces as Botticelli’s “Madonna and Child,” (c. 1466-67), “Madonna with Child and Saint Catherine,” (c.1550), an oil on canvas from the workshop of Titian, and Luca Giordano’s “Climb to Calvary” (c. 1685-86). One of the earliest works is Lorenzo Monaco’s “The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John and Mary Magdalene” (c. 1395-1400).
“There are many splendid paintings, and many are large in scale,” Katsiff says. “There will also be several huge tapestries in the exhibition as well as an illuminated manuscript. It’s an opportunity to see these treasures of the Uffizi that rarely travel out of the country.”
This is an especially exciting time for Katsiff, welcoming this extraordinary exhibition, while also anticipating the opening of the Michener’s fourth new wing, the Edgar N. Putnam Event Pavilion, an elegant glass-enclosed space. Additionally, Katsiff, who has been with the Michener since 1989, will mark a personal milestone when he retires as the museum’s steward to return to his first love, creating his own fine art photography.
Just recently, the museum’s board of directors announced Lisa Tremper Hanover, longtime director of the Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, as the new director and CEO. Hanover will join the Michener on July 9.
“I’m trying to go out on a high note with this exhibit and the new event pavilion opening,” Katsiff says. “The museum has made a lot of progress in 20 years. I’ve had a terrific time, and it will continue to prosper. I envision this will be the first of what will be a regular activity, having an international exhibit, probably every other year.
“Of course we’ll also have exhibits focusing on artists of the region, but we want to have these major traveling projects as well because it helps to introduce people to the (regional) arts,” he adds. “People who haven’t been here will see the permanent collections when they come to these traveling exhibits.”
Katsiff was born in Philadelphia. His father was a butcher and his mother, a seamstress. He calls himself a “Philly boy,” who attended Philadelphia’s Central High School in the early ’60s. He had his first photography exhibit at Central at age 17.
He went on to study photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, earning his BFA in 1969, then studied ceramics at the Pratt Institute, earning his MFA in 1973.
Katsiff’s work has been exhibited in museums and galleries including the Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. Before coming to the Michener Museum, he had been at Bucks County Community College in since 1975, where he taught photography and later served as chair of the fine art department, then the art and music division of the college.
Since his earliest days with the Michener, the museum has seen tremendous growth and is now the second-most visited art museum in the region, behind only the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Michener now has more than 2,500 pieces and some 15 rotating exhibits a year, and the facility has grown to six times its original size. Perhaps most telling in the story of the Michener’s expansion under Katsiff’s guidance is its popularity: last year the museum welcomed easily more than 100,000 visitors.
Interestingly, Katsiff is the rare museum director who is not a credentialed art historian, but a studio artist. However, he reminds us that America’s first museum director was also an artist: Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) of the famed Peale family was a painter, writer, and “museum keeper.”
Reflecting that photography has been his life’s work, Katsiff has experimented in a variety of subjects and styles throughout a career that has seen much technological change. He has spent a great deal of time going against the grain and mastering the art of platinum printing, creating beautiful, evocative works that display hidden beauty in complex constructions.
Even throughout his tenure at the Michener he says he’s never stopped making pictures, but now he’ll be better able to promote and exhibit his work. In fact, Katsiff is currently part of a group show, exhibiting a selection of platinum photographs with a Bucks County theme, at the new Joan Perkes Fine Art gallery at 202 N. Union Street in Lambertville.
“I’ve always been busy making pictures,” says Katsiff. “Photography is my psychiatry. I measure my reactions to the world by looking at my photographs.”
Katsiff lives in Doylestown Township with his wife, Joane, a retired English teacher. Son Timothy D. Katsiff is an attorney, a partner with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, in Philadelphia.
For Katsiff, one of the best aspects of being a museum director has been making art accessible to those who might otherwise not experience its joys.
“I like to say that museums are the place to bring together the 1 percent and the 99 percent, that museums represent the great democratization of the arts,” he says. “This exhibit is a prime example of this democratization, since these were paintings that were once in the private homes and chapels of the super rich. But here they can be seen by all kinds of people. With museums, we can share culture with all kinds of people, not just the wealthy.”
“Offering of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi,” on view at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, Saturday, April 21 through Friday, August 10. Non-member admission is $15 adults; $13 seniors; $11 college students with valid ID; $7.50 for children ages 6-18. Adult group tours are available for $12 per person. Free parking. 215-340-9800 or www.michenerartmuseum.org.