At Princeton University in the 1950s, Carl Belz was preparing for medical school when he decided to take a drawing class that met one evening a week. “It’s kind of corny to say it, but it sort of changed my life because I discovered art,” he recalled in an interview that is posted on YouTube.
Along with altering his direction, that moment of inspiration ended up enhancing the careers of scores of artists whose work he later featured during a groundbreaking 24 years as director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.
Mr. Belz, who was 78 when he died of a heart attack Sunday in his Arlington home, was “a champion of contemporary art,” Globe critic Christine Temin wrote in 1997 as she scolded Brandeis for forcing him to take early retirement as part of “a museum-world trend toward hiring directors who are, in effect, chief fund-raisers rather than chief art historians.”
Boston had been “notably inhospitable to new art” in the 20th century, Temin wrote, but Mr. Belz “managed to amass a stellar selection of contemporary American work for the Rose, the largest such collection in New England.”
More than just a towering figure in Boston’s contemporary art scene, Mr. Belz was, at 6-foot-5, probably the only museum director of his era who played professional basketball. And he surely was the sole art historian to hold the single-game rebounding record at his Ivy League school, with 29 against Rutgers University in 1959.
At the Rose, a distinguishing aspect of Mr. Belz’s tenure was the connection he formed with artists, particularly those in Greater Boston and the region. “He was completely devoted to the artists — not only the object, but the artist,” said Susan Stoops, who was curator at the Rose while he was there and went on to be curator of contemporary art at the Worcester Art Museum.
“He made the museum a meaningful forum for artists in the area,” Stoops said. “They knew they were a valued constituency at the museum under Carl’s leadership.”
William Beckman, whose paintings Mr. Belz showed at the Rose, said he “was the first person that I felt understood what I was trying to do.” Mr. Belz, Beckman added, was a “one of a kind” director who had the vision to, for example, display works from realist and abstract painters side by side in a way that highlighted their connections.
“The parallels could be seen if the exhibition was properly hung, which he did over and over,” Beckman said. “Not to mention that he was a genius with words. He would bring words alive. When you read an article by him, you not only could think about it, you could see it. I don’t know anyone else who was in the same league with him.”
A fraternal twin, Carl Irvin Belz was born in Camden, N.J., and grew up in Haddon Heights, where he was a stellar basketball, baseball, and track athlete. His mother, the former Ella Engler, had emigrated from Germany, and his father, Irvin, was a salesman in the meat business.
Going to Princeton was an academic revelation. “I had been co-valedictorian in high school, but this was a new level of intellectual challenge,” Mr. Belz told the Globe in 1997. He did well as a student and an athlete, however, and was accepted to attend the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. But the drawing class changed everything and even introduced him to Frank Stella, an artist whose work he featured years later at the Rose museum. At the time, Stella also was studying at Princeton and was creating paintings in the room where the drawing class was held.
Just before graduating and heading to medical school, Mr. Belz was accepted to study art history at Princeton as a graduate student, and he added a master’s and a doctorate to his bachelor’s degree. His doctoral dissertation was on Man Ray’s contributions to surrealism and Dada, and he visited the artist in Paris. While finishing his dissertation, he received in the mail a photo Ray had shot of him, which is posted in one Mr. Belz’s blog entries at leftbankartblog.blogspot.com.
The Philadelphia Warriors drafted Mr. Belz, but he declined to play in the NBA. During graduate school, though, he earned money by playing one season professionally in the Eastern Basketball League. “I wanted to find out if I was perhaps a little better than an average Ivy League player,” he told the Globe.
After finishing his doctorate, Mr. Belz taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and at Mills College in Oakland. He arrived at Brandeis in the 1960s and became the Rose’s director in 1974.
“He was an incredibly charismatic and inspiring teacher,” said Deborah Wye, who was one of his students in Amherst and is chief curator emerita of the department of prints and illustrated books at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“He awakened something about the whole world of ideas, not just about art. It was like we had found something that had been missing,” Wye said. “This was just life-altering for me. There aren’t that many people you meet who can change your life like that.”
Mr. Belz, whose previous marriage ended in divorce, married Barbara Vetter in 1968. They met while he was at Mills College. In recent years they divided their time between homes in Arlington and in Franconia, N.H., where “as chairman of our town’s Board of Selectmen I unilaterally appointed myself to a lifetime position as Franconia Culture Czar,” Mr. Belz quipped in a blog post. “Now how about that!”
“I’ve known Carl for 51 years and he was never boring. He had a really active intellect,” Barbara said, adding that along with writing numerous art essays and exhibition catalogs, he ranged widely across culture and even wrote a book about rock ‘n’ roll.
“He did what he was passionate about,” said his daughter Portia of Arlington. “Those convictions that he had are ones I have taken with me in my life as well — that it’s much more important to be guided by those kinds of passions than by making money or winning awards.”
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Belz leaves three other daughters, Melissa of Barnstead, N.H., Gretchen of Marion, and Emily of Cambridge; two sisters, Dorothy Belz King of Wall, N.J., and Elsie Belz Brown of Lewes, Del.; his brother, Herman of Rockville, Md.; and five grandchildren.
Family and friends will gather to celebrate his life at 2 p.m. Oct. 2 at the Cambridge Art Association.
“It was just this incredible gift to grow up with my dad because he taught me a way of seeing, which I think so few people get to know,” said Emily, who is a photographer. “This language of light and space and form — those things were imprinted on me at such an early age that they inform everything I see.”
Sometimes her own photography students take note of what she considers an aesthetic inheritance from him “and I’ll say, ‘That’s my dad — this special way of looking at the