In museums today, there are directors and there are artists. Rarely is one person both. Bruce Katsiff, fine art photographer and Director/CEO of the James A. Michener Art Museum for more than two decades, is that rare individual.
Beginning in 2012, Katsiff will be spending more time in his Bucks County studio than talking with architects about the surface of steel columns for a new event pavilion, or with investors about funding. He’ll spend more time making his own art than talking with curators about interpretations of religious art, or meeting with marketing executives about how to get the word out about an Italian touring exhibition of Old Master paintings and tapestries that will be making a stop in the former Bucks County Jail.
“I admire and respect how Bruce has been able to continue his own creative drive and productivity while his creative administrative intuition has reshaped the life of the arts in Bucks County,” says Newtown artist Emmet Gowin, who Katsiff helped hire as photography professor at Bucks County Community College, where he chaired the art and music department before coming to the Michener.
“Bruce Katsiff has been a creative original in his hybrid understandings as art maker and museum director,” continues Gowin, who retired from the Princeton University arts faculty in 2009. “Even at BCCC, Bruce demonstrated a powerful intuition for the identification of quality and originality, and he carried that wisdom with him to the Michener and we are all the richer for that wisdom.”
“Bruce took a big idea from the museum’s founders and, with those who came after, shaped it into something that could actually play out in the world of possibilities,” says Mary Case, who consults nationally with nonprofit museum boards and senior staff on leadership issues.
“He worked with an eye toward artistic quality, always increasing the scope and reach of the projects while balancing the budget. Along the way he developed a vibrant staff and volunteer corps and befriended scores of board members and donors,” continues Case, who grew up in the old Bucks County Jail as the warden’s daughter. “Now he leaves the people of Bucks County with bricks and mortar that will stand for generations, a carefully developed collection and the means to care for it. The most important resource of all, human intelligence, is part of his legacy.”
When Katsiff came to the museum in 1989, attendance averaged 8,000 visitors a year. Today, 120,000 people from throughout the region come to see 15 rotating exhibits a year. Under Katsiff’s eye the collection has grown to more than 2,500 works, and the Michener Art Museum is a leading repository of objects that reveal the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, from Thomas Hicks’ and Jonathan Trego’s mid-19th-century portraits, to Edward W. Redfield’s 20th-century impressionist landscapes, to the paintings and prints of contemporary artist Alan Magee. In 2001, the museum received accreditation from the American Association of Museums, a major stamp of approval for Katsiff’s fine work.
The original jailhouse has grown to more than 63,000 square feet of space for exhibitions, education, sculpture garden, seminar and conference facilities, a museum shop and café, the George Nakashima Reading Room, and state-of-the art preparation areas and collection storage spaces. In May 2012, the glass-enclosed, light-filled Edgar N. Putnam Event Pavilion, a $5 million project, will open, adding 2,700 square feet for performances and special events.
The son of a Philadelphia butcher and a seamstress, Bruce Katsiff found a personal connection to photography at Central High, working in the darkroom and on the student newspaper and for the literary magazine. He fondly recalls the quality art teachers there, noting that Thomas Eakins and William Glackens graduated from Central High. Katsiff’s very first exhibit, when he was 17, was at the Guilded Cagé Coffee House in Philadelphia.
To please his parents, Katsiff entered the pre-law program at Penn State, but soon left to work in the photo lab at Brooklyn-based Abraham & Strauss department store’s advertising department, commuting by motor scooter to a one-room apartment with a shared bath in the hall and a hotplate hidden under the bed. Katsiff remarks how he’s never known an artist who truly starved. “Artists always find work, whether teaching or at a museum,” he says.
He went on to study photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, earned an MFA at Pratt Institute, where he minored in ceramics (“I always loved to play in the mud”) and did postgraduate work at Oxford University. In 1968, while at RIT, one of his works was selected by Museum of Modern Art Curator of Photography Peter Bunnell for the exhibition Photography as Printmaking. Katsiff, then 22, met photographer Edward Steichen at the opening in New York City.
Two years later, The New York Times compared Katsiff to Franz Kline and Willem DeKooning, saying his prints “could easily be enlarged to mural size without losing effectiveness.”
“In order for artists to continue, they have to believe in themselves,” says Katsiff, who has exhibited internationally, including at the Tainjan Institute, China; American Arts Center, Exeter, England; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; and Philadelphia Museum of Art. “This experience helped me understand how important a museum exhibit is in an artist’s life as a stamp of approval. Forty years later, I’m still making pictures.”
He went on to a distinguished academic career, becoming chair of the art and music department at Bucks County Community College by the time he was 27. Under his leadership the department earned accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. He established programs in woodworking, computer graphics, jewelry, foundry and glassblowing, recruited five Guggenheim Fellows (Emmet Gowin, Nancy Hellebrand, Michael Smith, Larry Fink and George Krause), and oversaw more than 50 faculty members.
At BCCC Katsiff hired adjunct faculty member Brian Peterson, with whom he collaborated on the 1989 Photo Sesquicentennial, a multi-museum exhibition celebrating the 150-year anniversary of the birth of photography. Katsiff brought Peterson to the Michener as chief curator in 1993.
One of the first things Katsiff did when he came on board was to change the name from the James A. Michener Arts Center to the James A. Michener Art Museum. By 1993 the Museum had doubled in size, and three years later the Daniel Garber mural, “Wooded Watershed,” was installed as part of the permanent collection. In 1999, H. F. “Gerry” and Marguerite Lenfest donated 59 paintings and a $3 million endowment, allowing the Museum to become the primary repository for Pennsylvania Impressionist art.
In 2009, the museum opened the Syd & Sharon Martin Wing for traveling exhibitions, and achieved a milestone in visitorship for Jim Henson’s Fantastic World. Expansions are continuing to this day, with the Edgar N. Putman Event Pavilion slated to open in May 2012.
What is Katsiff’s secret recipe? “I’m not afraid to hire people who are smarter and more experienced than me, and to listen to them,” he says. “You have to have some sense of what excellence is – it pervades everything we do, from the buildings we build to the books we publish. You have to be able to find the resources and then implement them and follow through. This was the perfect community for that, with a combination of a rich artistic tradition and financial resources.”
One of his greatest challenges has been having so many gifted artists to choose from, with limited space. “For every one artist we give an exhibit to, there may be 100 we have to say ‘no’ to. There is always more talent than wall space.”
He looks back at the opportunity to work with the Michener’s namesake. “Jim was a remarkable citizen and philanthropist with a fantastically curious mind,” says Katsiff. “The Michener never would have succeeded without his name. He once took me aside and whispered, ‘After I’m gone, I give you permission to say, “Jim would have said…”’”
Katsiff continues, “But it’s not about me, it’s about us, and the time has come for someone new who will steer in a different direction. As for me, there are pictures I want to make, pots I want to build.”
Katsiff’s swan song will be Offerings of the Angels: Treasures from the Uffizi Gallery, a touring exhibition of Old Master paintings and tapestries from Florence, Italy, scheduled to open April 21, 2012 and run through August 10, 2012.
“Bruce came to the Michener in its infancy and has nurtured and grown it into what it is today, recognized for it’s excellence because of his leadership,” says philanthropist and founding board member Herman Silverman.
“He is leaving a tremendous gift to his successor,” says Board President Kevin Putman, who will be a part of the search committee forming in September. “The museum has succeeded far beyond the most ambitious dreams of its founders. We can feel confident our museum will be here 100 years from now, and beyond.”
The James A. Michener Art Museum is located at 138 South Pine St., Doylestown, Pa. Museum hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10 am to 4:30 pm;
Saturday 10 am to 5 pm; Sunday noon to 5 pm. Admission: Members and children under 6, free; adults $12.50; seniors $11.50; college student with valid ID $9.50; ages 6-18 $6; under 6 free. For more information, visit www.michenerartmuseum.org or call 215-340-9800.