Bergman's tenure turned Walters into livelier institution

September 02, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

When Walters Art Gallery director Robert P. Bergman becomes the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art next July, he will leave behind an institution which many think is a livelier -- and friendlier -- place. Eleven years of exhibitions and creative museum programming have helped transform the Walters from a museum which once seemed like a formal club into a welcoming home for the city's art collection.

"The Walters has been famous and wonderful forever, but Bob has done a great deal to modernize it in the sense of making it more responsive to the community as the community's needs have changed," says Tom Freudenheim, assistant secretary for the arts and humanities at the Smithsonian Institution.

"I admire how he was able to enhance the basic sensibility of the Walters and bring people back to admiring the collections of the two great Walters collectors while turning it into a great lively, community-oriented museum."

With a collection that spans more than 5,000 years, the Walters Art Gallery is considered one of America's most distinguished museums. William Walters, founder of the collection, amassed primarily 19th century painting and sculpture and Asian art while his son, Henry, collected from all areas and periods of art history. The museum opened to the public in 1934.

"The place just glitters, it really does," Mr. Freudenheim says. "When Bob came, the new wing had been done but they hadn't gotten around to the original building. Now it's the old building that outshines the new wing. Bob's been terrific for Baltimore . . . and for the Walters."

The 47-year-old art scholar and museum administrator has been director of the Walters Art Gallery since 1981. He supervised the $6 million renovation of the Walters' original, 1904 building and the acquisition and $7.5 million conversion of Hackerman House into the Walters' museum of Asian art.

Major exhibitions developed and co-organized during his time include "Silver Treasure from Early Byzantium" in 1986; "Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours" and "Holy Image, Holy Space: Icons and Frescoes from Greece" in 1988; "Islamic Art and Patronage: Treasures from Kuwait" in 1990 and "Gates of Mystery: The Art of Holy Russia" in 1992.

During his tenure, the endowment has almost tripled to $32 million and the budget has grown from $2.3 million to almost $7 million.

"Bob's accomplishments at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore earned an A+ and we look forward to working with him in Cleveland," Michael Sherwin, president of the board of trustees at the Cleveland Museum, said in a statement. Mr. Bergman will succeed retiring director Evan Hopkins Turner on July 1, 1993.

The Cleveland Museum of Art, opened in 1916, is considered to be one of the greatest general art museums in the country. It is known for its premier permanent collection and has an endowment and trust of nearly $400 million.

"Cleveland is a much bigger institution [than the Walters]. It's not without its financial challenges but it has a resource base which is incredibly larger. There's a chance to make a difference internationally as well as locally, in terms of the collection and the education opportunities," said Mr. Bergman.

"I can only assume that people will interpret this news as seeing that one of the country's leading museums has looked at what we've accomplished at the Walters and made a favorable judgment. I think all of Baltimore should take pride in that."

A scholar of Byzantine and early medieval Italian art, Mr. Bergman taught at Princeton and Harvard before coming to the Walters Art Gallery. Known for his passionate arts advocacy, he became a very vocal supporter of the National Endowment for the Arts during its recent funding crises.

He was recently named president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, the professional organization of the nation's 158 largest art museums, and is chairman of the board of the American Arts Alliance, the major national advocacy coalition representing art museums, symphony orchestras, theater and ballet and opera companies and presenting organizations.

Mr. Bergman will remain at the Walters through next June. The museum's board of directors will discuss the search for his replacement next week, said Jay Wilson, president of the Walters' board of trustees.

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