When art historian Bruce Boucher wanted to reunite the three panels of a huge 14th-century altarpiece from three different countries, the Italian lender of one of the pieces had one condition: the finished product had to be shown at a big-city museum.
"And of course," said Boucher, director of the University of Virginia Art Museum, "I immediately thought of MOBiA."
It was a high compliment to the small institution in a city that's awash in better-known art museums, and to Ena Heller, the Romanian emigrant with a Ph.D. in art history who has led the Museum of Biblical Art as its founding director for the past 15 years.
The exhibit featuring the triptych, "The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi: A Masterpiece Reconstructed," is the latest in a string of unexpected successes for MOBiA, which has hosted well-received exhibits ranging from a collection of Peruvian folk art to masterpieces by Marc Chagall to a recent collection of wartime Bibles.
Now, however, the future of one of the smaller and more eccentric pearls in the city's cultural crown looks less certain as Heller steps down in July, its main financial lifeline gets cut in 2015 and the museum is dogged by rumors that it will lose its $1-a-year lease on Broadway near Lincoln Center.
It's the museum equivalent of the classic lost-my-job, lost-my-girlfriend, lost-my-lease trifecta. And it complicates the museum's trustees' task of preserving a vision that didn't exist 20 years ago, but that now seems indispensable to many.
MOBiA is unlike most big-city museums in its exclusive focus on Christian and Jewish religious art—but also its attention to that art's religiousness. The museum had no religious agenda per se, which is ironic since it started as part of the venerable ...1
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