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A degree in petroleum engineering is not the usual training ground for a museum administrator. But then, Stefano Catalani, director of art, craft and design at Bellevue Arts Museum, located outside Seattle, Wash., is not your usual arts administrator.
A native of Genazzano, south of Rome, Catalani seamlessly blends a scientific background, with its focus on analytic skills and attention to detail, with a sophisticated aesthetic and a talent for creating thought-provoking conversations. It’s a perfect combination for Bellevue Arts Museum whose innovative exhibits on design and craft attracted 80,000 visitors last year.
Catalani is co-curator (with Kelsey Rudd) of a new exhibit at BAM called “Let’s Play War!,” which features soft-fiber figures created by New York artist Nathan Vincent. The installation, which opened June 19, was inspired by the little plastic soldiers that many children play with, but these armies have grown to half life-sized and their ‘skin” is knit from yarn.
The exhibit raises questions about traditional codes of conduct and speaks to the militarization of our cultural landscape. “Knitting is usually associated with a domestic dimension, but this exhibit challenges that expectation,” said Catalani. “There is a visual danger here, a sense of foreboding. Suddenly, it’s not about play anymore. The artist also makes a statement about what we are teaching our children, since what we play with as kids prepares us for our role in life.”
Catalani’s father, an amateur painter in his youth, taught him early on that art is a language all its own. He followed a liberal arts track during high school—and still enjoys reading the classics today—but was inspired by a professor to consider the sciences. He went on to earn a master’s degree in mining and petroleum engineering at Sapienza University of Rome.
While employed as an engineer in Sicily, Catalani remained engaged in the art world, guest-curating exhibits in Rome and on Malta. Although it sounds like a strange mix, it worked. “Engineering taught me to manage complicated, multi-million-dollar projects,” he explained. “I learned about deadlines, budgets and accountability. Curating allowed me to stay connected to art.”
After two years, the art world won out and Catalani quit his engineering job. In 2001, while in his early 30s, he made his way to Seattle where he found the Pacific Northwest to be “a breath of fresh air.” “The first two years in Seattle were some of the most exciting of my life,” he said. “I breathed, ate and talked art, and spent months building relationships with the city and its cultural producers. Most of the friendships I have now were forged during those early years.”
Catalani made a splash in 2003 with the “Last Judgment Project” staged for Bumbershoot, Seattle’s international music and arts festival. Eighteen American and European artists were asked to create works on the themes of judgment, prejudice and justice. “The show ran during the era of George Bush, freedom fries and the war in Iraq,” Catalani said. “It was a political exhibit but it allowed people to explore these questions in a nonjudgmental way.”
The following year, Catalani, now working at Atelier 31 in Seattle, caught the attention of then-BAM director Michael Monroe, and within a year, joined the museum staff as curator. Five years later, he was appointed director of art, craft and design. He has since organized some 20 exhibits emphasizing both tradition and innovation.
Challenging ideas and questioning perceptions are themes that resonate with Catalani, who views the language of art as both contemporary and timeless. “Some people think that technology provides a higher level of consciousness,” he said, “but it is simply a different tool. Our feelings are the same ones that Plato wrote about 2,500 years ago. We have the same intellectual curiosity and the same spirit of being human. In other words, we all speak the same language.”
If you go: “Let’s Play War!” is on exhibit through Oct. 18, 2015 at Bellevue Arts Museum (510 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue, WA 98004). The museum is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (closed Mondays). For more information, call 425-519-0770, or visit www.bellevuearts.org.