Coming Change at the Walters

September 19, 1992

Since Robert P. Bergman became its director in 1981, the Walters Art Gallery has renovated the 1904 original building, added the Hackerman House wing of Asian art, introduced admission fees, increased attendance by half, increased membership dramatically, nearly tripled endowment and more than tripled its annual budget. Upon his departure, to head the larger and much wealthier Cleveland Museum of Art next summer, Mr. Bergman will be missed.

The Walters Art Gallery, belonging to the city and people of Baltimore, is one of the world's great art museums, thanks to the collecting skills and public generosity of William T. and Henry Walters. Were it in Paris or New York or Rome, millions would visit the Walters each year. It is one of Baltimore's gems, a natural tourist magnet though a bit far from the Inner Harbor, a must for anyone's education in the world's cultures, a haven of escape for those who work downtown, the site of many a day well spent for lovers of art.

But the Walters is also a city institution, a beneficiary of city subsidies and county, state and federal grants and corporate donations. And a victim of recession and budget cutbacks. The successor to Mr. Bergman will have challenges waiting.

The Cleveland Museum of Art is almost the last surviving model of what, in a perfect world, a city's art museum should be. It is enormous, wealthy in many collections, in a beautifully cultivated park near a major university (Case-Western) and a rapid transit line. It has a very large budget for acquisitions, it is free to the public and its cafeteria is reasonably priced for people who need it, looking out on a sculpture garden. Its secret is endowment and trusts totaling nearly $400 million. (Compare that to the Walters' $32 million.)

Philanthropy has been Cleveland's forte in this century, compensating for unfortunate governments and guaranteeing that it boasts more than urban problems. The Cleveland Orchestra, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the nation's pioneer and now immense community foundation set world standards. Mr. Bergman will inherit there a larger committed base of private sector support from which to work than could ever be found here.

Mr. Bergman was an obscure academic when a head-hunting firm sold him and the Walters on each other. Thanks to its institutional growth under his direction, the next search should be able to find someone more prominent in the museum world than he was then if it wishes, though the Walters' small acquisitions budget would deter some from applying. What should appeal to any candidate is how good the Walters and Mr. Bergman have been for each other.

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