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 American Bible Society.
“Most secular museums are uncomfortable with faith and prefer to treat religious subjects aesthetically or in terms of art history, not as a vehicle for awe,” said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. “Ena’s position-presenting the art as a spiritual thing, but doing it with a secular rigor, takes guts.”
The museum is a unique institution: the agnostic offspring of a missionary organization, founded in 1997 when the Bible Society decided to capitalize on its prime real estate with a gallery. It recruited Heller and accepted her main proviso: that the gallery operate free of any faith identification.
Historically, “we’ve been involved in Bible distribution and translation. But with an average of 4.3 Bibles per American household, we are now working to increase engagement with the Bible outside of the home or church,” said ABS spokesman Geof Morin. “A secular-friendly Bible museum was an opportunity to do that.”
Heller understood the arrangement more in terms of academic objectivity. In 2004, the museum registered as a nonreligious nonprofit. Heller enlisted a board of opinionated Christian and Jewish members — among them Roberta Ahmanson, the monied patroness and Christian culture warrior, and Tom Freudenheim, former head of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.