Burn Down the Disco

A conversation with Bellevue Arts Museum’s Director Stefano Catalani

For Stefano Catalani, director of Art, Craft and Design at the Bellevue Arts Museum, art has to be relevant. It can’t just be stunning. It has to open doors, challenge concepts and entice the mind. Above all, it has to be relatable. “There was a song by The Smiths, it’s called ‘Panic,’” says Catalani as he paraphrases the lyrics: “burn down the disco, because the music that they play says nothing to me about my life.” Like the British rock band, Catalani isn’t interested in art that’s meaningless. “I always remember those words because I want people to come to the museum and feel like the shows are talking to them about their own lives.” Catalani strives to enlighten the community with captivating art while leaving out the mundane to burn under mainstream’s blinding lights. We discuss his love of art, the museum’s fashionable neighbor and more.

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Photo by Christine Cox

Who introduced you to art and how did you fall in love with it? My father was an amateur painter when he was young and the house was surrounded by his paintings. He was really passionate about art, mostly paintings and sculpture. He always asked me, you know, “What do you see?” when I was looking at a picture since I was young. I think that question has remained with me because I always ask myself, “What do I see?” when I first start interacting with an artwork.

Where are you from? I was born in Rome and raised in a small medieval town which is in the province of Rome, it’s called Genazzano. It’s a 5,000-people medieval town that grew around a medieval castle, which originally was a fortress and turned into a residential castle around 1400. And then I moved to Seattle in 2001.

What brought you all the way here? Personal reasons. Love, let’s put it this way. I would have never thought, honestly, that I would end up in Seattle … This is home, Seattle is home. My God, that’s a big statement.

What do you like here? I think that there is a very lively and a very healthy artist community here and art scene. So I like that, I like it very much. I love the city, I love the Northwest, I love the Sound, I love the San Juan Islands. I like the nature, I like the surroundings.

What is your best advice to your 25-year-old self? Don’t be shy. Believe in yourself, your ideas. Knock on all the doors you can imagine. That’s what I did … I always use this metaphor: “We’re like cooking this huge beautiful meal but if you don’t let people know by sending invitations, and making phone calls and talking to them, then no one is going to show up to your huge beautiful dinner.” Or if you’re on the threshold and facing a door and your fist is raised and you’re about to knock on the door but you don’t have the courage to knock, no one is going to open that door. So you need to make that first step.

For something to take on the title, this is art, what does it have to do? Does it have to provoke a feeling? 

It’s both an intellectual and visual response for me, which is actually what I treasure. Sometimes I walk into a gallery or I walk into a studio and see something, it catches my eyes, it catches my soul. I do not know yet what it is about but I have that gut reaction. I have that visual reaction. And normally I treasure that moment which means when I go back to my studio, I analyze it and I try to understand what it is. It has to be really that gut reaction for me. Even before the artist or the gallery owner or whoever speaks about the work because at that point that’s an extra layer, that’s another narrative that is imposed upon the object …The object exists in its own identity and that is not necessarily what the artist intended. It belongs both to the artist and to the public. It’s like a human being. We are not just the intention of our parents. We have our own personality, we have our own identity. That’s for me, what art is.

What is your favorite art piece hanging in your house? I like to collect art but this photograph is particularly meaningful for me. The title of the piece is called “Gordon” and it’s by an Austrian artist called Maree Azzopardi, she is of Maltese origin … In the ’90s, she did a residency in a hospital in New South Wales, I believe. It was actually a hospice for HIV-infected patients in terminal conditions and this was before the research had found medications that would stop the effects of the virus. She was there for six months and only during the last six or seven days, or maybe two weeks of her residency, she was actually living and breathing and eating with the patients and seeing many of them passing away. She was actually able to establish a connection with some of them and ask them to pose for her photographs. And so Gordon poses and looks at the camera. He is very gaunt, and the eyes, that’s why it bothered me. The eyes of this man, who passed away probably about a month after the photograph was taken, ask a big question. “Why? Why is this happening?” That’s what I see in those eyes every time I look at this photograph. Those eyes are piercing. It’s a piece that actually I could not keep in the living room at a certain point. I moved it in my studio because it was somewhat disturbing for some of my family. (Azzopardi cut up the original photograph and puzzled it back together as a patchwork of different tiles. The craftwork that went into the piece is also meaningful to Catalani.)

Which artist, dead or alive, would you like to meet? Caravaggio. I would want to see Caravaggio painting. I would speak Italian with him.

What is Bellevue Arts Museum’s biggest challenge? Bellevue has done great strides toward becoming a real city and is urbanizing very fast. Although the perception of Bellevue from a Seattle perspective is still affected a little by old prejudices, right? I think for us the challenge is to grow organically with the city as the city will grow.  Because I think a great city needs a great museum and we are poised to be the museum for this great city.

You’re across the street from The Bellevue Collection. Is that a good thing? Do you ever feel in competition with it? It’s not a competition, it’s actually fantastic. I think that people who come to Bellevue are starting to understand that coming to Bellevue is not just about a shopping experience, to go to the mall, but it’s a cultural experience … It’s not a competition it’s actually a perfect synergy. And I think, actually, the mall here in Bellevue is capable of attracting people from, for example, British Columbia. It gives us an interesting audience that is out of state for BAM and I’m really happy with that.

What makes your job worth it?
The pleasure that comes with knowing that I’ve done my job when a kid discovers that the world is bigger than they thought when they see a work of art. Or when an adult walks out with a new perspective … I think the pleasure that comes from knowing that I’m here to hold a mirror for the audience, the public, the society so they can reflect and see themselves. And maybe they can see themselves in a different way.

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is the managing editor at 425 magazine. Email her.
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