The Walters: Looking Back with Pride, Forward with Concern

September 13, 1992|By ROBERT P. BERGMAN

Quite frankly, the level of attention focused on m appointment in 1981 as director of the Walters Art Gallery stunned me. After all, what did a young, greenhorn Harvard professor of art history understand about the Walters' position as the central jewel in Baltimore's cultural crown.

Eleven years later, and at least a little wiser, I am not in the least surprised that the announcement of my departure next spring to assume the directorship of the distinguished Cleveland Museum Art is major news. I now know well that the Walters is among our city's primary defining elements. Our actions have a critical impact on Baltimore, culturally, educationally, economically and psychologically.

Very few opportunities could have lured me away from our beloved Walters Art Gallery, for which my passions run embarrassingly deep. The Walters, as many people realize, is one of those special museums loved as much for its character as for its collections. Those collections are among the finest in this country, so that character must be very special indeed.

The fates have certainly been my friends. They conspired to set me down in this wonderful city, to entrust me with leadership of its greatest cultural institution and to provide me with everything required to coax to the surface much of its inherent greatness.

They provided me with spirited, intelligent and devoted colleagues who excel in all areas of the museum profession. They provided me with a progressive and visionary board of trustees willing to raise money in support of the museum's mission. They provided me with superb board leadership and, in Jay M. Wilson, board president for most of my years here, with simply the best partner any museum director will ever have.

As if all this weren't enough, consider the other blessings bestowed. Baltimore over the past decade may well have been the most dynamic of all American cities. Moreover, I enjoyed the closest relations with two mayors (Schaefer and Schmoke) and one governor (Schaefer) who conducted themselves almost as adjunct curators of government responsibility. Their appreciation of the critical role played by our cultural institutions in general, and the Walters in particular, contributed mightily to our success.

All of these factors, combined with a significant degree of financial support from many people in and beyond Baltimore, allowed the Walters to develop significant initiatives during the past decade.

The museum took bold positions in renovating Mr. Walters' original Renaissance-revival gallery building and in converting One West Mt. Vernon Place into Hackerman House, the Walters's Museum of Asian Art. The Walters' humanistic

exhibition philosophy placed it in the vanguard of new museum approaches. A sensitivity to context, an emphasis on detail, an unabashed love of perfection and a joy in finding innovative ways to communicate to the public the messages and meanings of works of art seemed to resonate with the values and preferences many people.

The Walters is that rare institution combining the highest professional standards with a tradition of ethical conduct and a devotion to democratic ideals. It not only does things right; it does the right things. All of us are ennobled by our association with this great civic treasure.

Such celebratory thoughts will be among my primary memories of the Walters and Baltimore. But my joy is somewhat tempered by the fear that when I depart for Cleveland next summer I may not leave behind me conditions conducive to sustaining the brilliant cultural dimension of Baltimore life. I might seem parochial were my concern only for the future of the Walters; in fact, my anxiety extends to the whole cultural fabric of our city and state.

My worries center around two issues: education and money. Despite increasing evidence that education in the arts fosters the type of connective and integrated thinking that will be an essential aspect of 21st century intelligence -- to say nothing of the essential humanizing effects of such learning -- instruction in the practice, criticism and history of the arts remains an endangered species in our schools. This situation will only further diminish the audience for the arts. Moreover, from a broader perspective, it will squander an opportunity both to encourage innovative thought processes and to emphasize universal and humanizing impulses of our species.

It is ironic that the current bold assertion of cultural identity among many constituent groups in our population ("multiculturalism"), a development that has many in the establishment trembling, may be the salvation of establishment culture. In the face of general apathy the multiculturalists are aggressively asserting the primacy -- and the power -- of cultural and artistic phenomena. While I may not agree with all their points of view, I am thankful for their appreciation of and emphasis on these issues.

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