Karl Katz, Museum Director in New York and Israel, Dies at 88

Typically, he said, after such investments, the only legacy of those exhibitions was a catalog.

“The most logical extension of this fleeting experience,” he said, “is a film, with a long shelf life and a huge audience.”


Mr. Katz, far left, at a party in Manhattan in 2012 after the premiere of the film “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” With him, from left, are Julie Goldman, an executive producer; Alison Klayman, the director; and Adam Schlesinger, a producer. Credit Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Mr. Katz had not considered himself a serious student in high school and entered college contemplating a career in journalism or theater.

He appeared in plays while in college and performed sock-puppet shows for children on weekends, but abandoned thoughts of a theatrical career after he was found to have a minor speech impediment and had what he described, without elaborating, as “an unfortunate onstage experience” while performing in an Ibsen play.

His epiphany was a 90-minute standing-room-only lecture without notes at Columbia by the art historian Meyer Schapiro in which “connections were made like so many synapses firing — everything from psychoanalysis and religion to politics and semiotics,” Mr. Katz wrote in his autobiography, “The Exhibitionist: Living Museums, Loving Museums” (2016).

“Those 90 minutes sealed the deal,” he wrote. “I would study art history and archaeology.”

Karl L. Katz — his son said the middle initial did not stand for anything — was born on Oct. 22, 1929, in Brooklyn to Maurice Katz, a salesman, and the former Rose Leibovitz, both of whom were active in Jewish and Zionist causes.

A yeshiva student, he graduated from Midwood High School in Brooklyn and was muddling his way through Long Island University when his older brother suggested he transfer to Columbia’s School of General Studies, which had been reorganized into an undergraduate college after World War II to accommodate returning veterans.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in art history and Semitic studies and a master’s in fine arts and archaeology at Columbia. He completed his doctoral thesis in early Hebrew manuscripts from Yemen but never fulfilled the language requirement for his doctorate; he said he could not bring himself to learn German so soon after the Holocaust.

In addition to his son, Mr. Katz, who lived in Manhattan, is survived by his wife, the former Elizabeth Segal, whom he married in 1978, and his brother, Elihu.


Mr. Katz at the International Center of Photography Infinity Awards in Manhattan in 2014. Credit Chance Yeh/Getty Images

Mr. Katz began his career when he was recruited in 1953 as an educator at the Met during the exhibition “From the Land of the Bible.” He then went to Israel as an archaeologist and was hired as curator of the National Bezalel Museum, the forerunner to the Israel Museum, on which he collaborated with Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem.

After 13 years in Israel, he returned to New York in 1969 to become director of the Jewish Museum, where he sought to reconcile its liturgical agenda with more contemporary art.

He left in 1971 to rejoin the Met as chairman for special projects, a job he held until 1980. He then directed the museum’s office of film and television until 1991, when he founded Muse.

Among the documentaries that company has produced are “Degenerate Art” (1993), about an exhibition commissioned by Hitler to denigrate modern art; “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (2012), about the Chinese artist and activist; and “Herb & Dorothy” (2008), about the art collectors Herbert and Dorothy Vogel.

In the early 1970s, after the Jewish Museum presented an exhibition curated by the photographer Cornell Capa, Mr. Katz persuaded Mr. Capa that his International Center for Photography needed a museum to house its collection. It opened in 1974 in a former mansion on Fifth Avenue.

Asked in 1997 by The Times to draw on his many professional incarnations to define art, Mr. Katz replied: “People look at art as if it were a checklist; the label is sometimes more important than the work of art.

“My sense is that looking at art is like having a conversation,” he continued. “If it’s not visual and it’s not visceral and it’s not communicative, it’s not a work of art.”

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