Published  03/11/2014

Nathaniel Prottas interview: ‘Often museum didactics get in the way of people viewing art’

Nathaniel Prottas interview: ‘Often museum didactics get in the way of people viewing art’

Nathaniel Prottas, director of education at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York, talks about public programming for its current exhibition, which traces the history of printmaking, through works by Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo and other master printmakers

Dürer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo: The Jansma Master Prints Collection from the Grand Rapids Art Museum
Museum of Biblical Art (MOBiA), New York
17 October – 11 January 2014


Featuring Albrecht Dürer’s 16 prints for his Engraved Passion (1507-13), Rembrandt van Rijn’s drypoint The Three Crosses (1653-55), Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s 24 etchings for The Flight into Egypt (1750-53), Édouard Manet’s etching Dead Christ with Angels (1866-67), William Blake’s 21 illustrations for The Book of Job (1825), and Max Pechstein’s 12 hand-coloured woodcuts expressing the Lord’s Prayer (1921), the Jansma Print Collection at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) is one of the world’s finest selections of prints, outstanding in historical range, calibre of artists and quality of impressions.

For much of the year, residents of Grand Rapids, Michigan, can view the collection in GRAM’s Jansma Family Works on Paper Study Room along with the museum’s holdings of more than 3,500 works on paper, mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries. But for the next few months, the prints are displayed in New York at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBiA), providing a much wider audience with access to these masterpieces.

Dürer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo: The Jansma Master Prints Collection from the Grand Rapids Art Museum is part of MOBiA’s 10-year anniversary celebration. Concurrently, the museum is also exhibiting Bibles from the American Bible Society’s Rare Bible Collection to commemorate the society’s approaching 200-year anniversary.1

Commenting on this rare opportunity to view these works, including Blake’s illustrations for the Book of Job, acquired this year, the director of MOBiA, Richard P Townsend, said: “We are pleased to partner with the Grand Rapids Art Museum to share the collection, which underscores how biblical narratives have influenced artists over time, and is a perfect vehicle for showcasing the history of a creative technique, telling the story of the development of western printmaking from the Renaissance to the 20th century.”

The story behind the Jansma family’s passion for biblically inspired art is as moving as the prints they have acquired. When Sidney Jansma Jr accepted a challenge to contribute to GRAM, he was merely taking another leap of faith in a life ruled by risk. A native of Grand Rapids and owner of Wolverine Gas and Oil Corporation, Jansma is a committed member of the Christian Reformed Church. Whether drilling for oil or funding a variety of Christian initiatives, he is known for acting from the heart and on gut instinct.

The first in his immediate family to achieve a college degree, Jansma studied economics at a Christian liberal arts school in Grand Rapids and earned an MBA from the University of Michigan. When his father, who started Wolverine in 1948, retired after two decades in the business, the then recent graduate took over company.

After expanding Wolverine’s business in Michigan and Utah, Jansma sold the company, but later founded another with the same name and personnel. Proving that small operations have the same odds for success as corporate giants, in 2003 Jansma made the largest onshore oil discovery in the US in three decades on land in Utah.

In 2005, he and his wife, Joanne, began to acquire an exquisite group of prints narrating key biblical texts. Two years later, Joanne died from cancer, but Jansma has continued to expand the collection and fund education programmes with Cate, an Australian, whom he married in 2009.

GRAM has developed resources that amplify the experience of viewing the prints, such as a project with the Grand Rapids Symphony in which music composed when the prints were made act as accompaniment and a free iPad app available from the Apple store.2  

In New York, MOBiA has scheduled many events to immerse 21st-century viewers in the biblical narratives and printmaking techniques. Cindi di Marzo talked about them with MOBiA’s director of education, Nathaniel Prottas.3

Cindi di Marzo: Congratulations, Dr Prottas, on this beautiful exhibit. I know it has been a long time in the making. Where did the idea to bring the prints to New York originate?

Nathaniel Prottas: The planning began before my tenure, but MOBiA has a history of exceptional print shows, notably our 2008 exhibition Albrecht Dürer: Art in Transition. The Jansmas were enthusiastic, and the content of their collection allowed us to highlight the central role the Bible has played in the history of printmaking, from its beginnings in the early-16th century to the 20th century.

CDM: This historical exhibit is an intriguing choice to follow the show you just closed, Back to Eden, which looked at the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden in contemporary works.4 One link between these markedly diverse exhibits is how you display Bibles along with the art to add depth and context.

NP: We are extraordinarily fortunate to be able to include rare Bibles owned by the American Bible Society. Each Bible in this show is more or less contemporaneous with the prints it accompanies. For educators, the Bibles offer a contextualisation of the art as well as a point of departure to discuss relationships between text and image. By offering written accounts in conjunction with visual interpretations of the stories, we can encourage visitors to critically evaluate the choices, additions, omissions and emphases created by artists as they interpreted the Bible. The Bibles themselves are often quite extraordinary and noteworthy in their own right.

CDM: Two of the treasures in the exhibit, Dürer’s The Martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria (c1498) and the wood block Dürer carved to create it, both on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are memorable visual aides to understanding the woodcut process. In a glass case, visitors will also see implements used for making woodcuts, engravings and etchings. Do you have hands-on activities planned for people who want to make prints?

NP: Although much of our programming is based in dialogue and lecture, we have an event at the end of October with the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in which Anna-Marie Settine [fellow at the Robert Blackburn studio] will discuss different types of printmaking and guide participants to make their own prints. We also have a printmaking workshop on 27 December for children aged six to 13 and their families.

CDM: Please tell us about your courses for young professionals and MOBiA’s collaboration with the Frick Collection.

NP: This autum, MOBiA launched a series for college and graduate students, and recent graduates. These are free courses in which participants come to the galleries after hours to look closely at a particular theme explored in the current exhibition. The collaboration with the Frick Collection was born from my time there as Samuel H Kress Interpretive Fellow, where I taught courses similar to those we now have at MOBiA. Rika Burnham, head of education at the Frick, is a true visionary in museum education and an expert in Rembrandt. I thought that by creating courses that took place at the Frick and at MOBiA, we could offer participants a wider range of objects to explore while also introducing audiences to institutions they may not be as familiar with.

Rembrandt's beautiful Three Crosses print on display in MOBiA’s galleries supplied a compelling reason for us to collaborate, and allows her to discuss Rembrandt as a painter and printmaker during a two-part course. Olivia Powell, associate museum educator at the Frick, and I will teach a course on northern and southern Renaissance art. I will also lead a course, Sacred Seriality: The Serial Devotional Print, where we will look at Dürer’s Engraved Passion.5

CDM: The powerful impact of serial imagery is evident today in graphic novels, which are widely available to people at all levels of society. Were the first prints available to people of all classes and how were they acquired?

NP: The first prints were inexpensive and created for mass consumption, but very soon they began to be produced as something closer to what we call fine art. In the case of Dürer, whose work will be the primary focus in that course, the prints were intended for an affluent audience and would not have been broadly available.

CDM: Many people will be familiar with Dürer’s groundbreaking use of the engraving technique and Rembrandt’s singular skill in rendering character and emotion through etching. Manet’s involvement with printmaking in the 19th century and the renewed interest in woodcuts by the German expressionists in the 20th century, represented here by Pechstein’s passionate woodcuts for The Lord’s Prayer, are less well known. How do you integrate the history of printmaking into an examination of the works?

NP: One of the most striking things about this exhibition is that it traces the history of printmaking – techniques, iconographies, styles –from its origins in the late-15th and early-16th century to the early-20th century. The exhibit begins not quite at the beginning of printmaking but Dürer's astounding technical skill, paired with his investment in elevating the status of the artist in the north, marks a turning point in the history of printmaking, changing the medium into a fine art form.

Manet and Pechstein are particularly interesting within this narrative. Manet’s use of print technology just when photography was emerging to compete with prints is fascinating. We know that Manet often used prints as inspiration, and that many of the Old Master paintings that inspired him were circulated in print. In the case of Dead Christ with Angels, the Manet painting on which the print is based, was itself inspired by a print of Veronese’s Pietà. So when looking at Manet as a printmaker, we can ask questions about the circulation of art and the technologies of reproduction in mid-19th century France.

Pechstein created Das Vater Unser [The Lord’s Prayer] in the wake of the first world war, and his return to woodcut clearly recalls the earliest printmakers of Germany. Pechstein’s work is interesting because it calls on a wide variety of influences, from Dürer’s woodcuts to French realistic imagery of peasants to non-western influences. Pechstein’s incorporation of the prayer in Martin Luther’s German translation points to popular or private devotion rather than organised religion, and the imagery confirms this; in most of the woodcuts, he depicted groups of figures in prayer as individuals not congregations.

CDM: The engaging gallery guide you produced for the exhibit serves as an invitation for further study, rather unlike a typical fact-filled catalogue, gallery tour or audio guide. Do you find that short, illustrated guides are more inviting for the general public?

NP: We vary our supplemental materials from exhibition to exhibition. In this case, a smaller brochure along with the app produced by GRAM offers visitors, as you say, a sort of invitation to explore further. But I also think that often museum didactics get in the way of people viewing art. I appreciate a museum space that allows me time to look closely and explore the work on my own, guided when I wish to be by supplemental information.

CDM: You also have what you call spotlight talks on your schedule. One spotlight is on Blake’s Job, images laden with idiosyncratic spiritual imagery and profound spiritual message. Have these brief talks been successful?

NP: For this exhibition, we have arranged to have spotlight talks every weekend, which will be given by members of our visitor services team. A special spotlight talk focuses exclusively on Blake’s Job. We find that offering more focused talks has been successful with our audiences; rather than give a broad overview of the entire show, we aim to place attention on a single work so that visitors can have the time and space to really look closely at it. In the future, we hope to organise lectures combining talks with in-gallery discussion, beginning in the lecture hall then breaking into discussion groups in the galleries afterwards.

CDM: Your forthcoming Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral continues in a historical vein.6 Made in the first decades of the 15th century for Florence Cathedral, most of the sculptures have never left Italy and, after they are reinstalled following the cathedral’s renovation, may never do so again. Can you give us a preview of the events and programmes you have planned for it?

NP: We will have a seven-part lecture series, a day-long international symposium, several courses for young professionals, seminars for members and a concert of 15th-century Italian music by Sonnambula Viol Consort.7  We will also have two free Friday evenings with music, drawing and gallery talks. It promises to be a very exciting time for the museum, and we hope that a wide range of audiences will join us not only to view the exhibition, but also to listen to lectures, engage in discussions and hear wonderful music.

CDM: Yes, this does sound exciting and will, no doubt, draw a diverse audience to the exhibit. In the meantime, we can savour the magnificent prints in Dürer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo. Thank you, Dr Prottas, for telling us about the exhibit and the events you developed for it.

1. MOBiA is located in the American Bible Society’s headquarters. For more information on the society, founded in 1816, and the exhibit, A Bible for Our Nation, go to:
2. To download the app, go to
3. Before joining MOBiA in July 2014, Prottas was Samuel H Kress Interpretive Fellow at the Frick Collection and a museum educator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters. He completed his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania on the crisis in religious imagery in the art of Germany and Netherlands circa 1500. He earned his master’s degree from University College, London, and his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago.
4. Read Studio International’s interview with Jennifer Scanlan, curator of Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden.
5. For the event schedule with meeting times and locations, go to
6. Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral opens at MOBiA on 20 February:
7. For more information on Sonnambula Viol Consort, go to

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