Robert Bergman's final embrace

May 16, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

As Robert P. Bergman looks back on his 12-year tenure as director of the Walters Art Gallery, he considers his greatest achievement not the building renovations or the exhibitions that most people will associate with him. He says, "We've . . . embraced the community. Even more importantly, I feel every day the strengthening of the community's embrace of us.

"We enjoy close relationships with constituencies that span the spectrum of our community," says Mr. Bergman, who is about to leave the Walters to become director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. "We have become highly active in relationships with African-Americans. We have a standing committee, and have significantly increased the representation of African-Americans on our board and our staff.

"We have pursued an analogous development with the Asian-American community, taking advantage of the wonderful resource of Hackerman House [opened in 1991 as the Walters' museum of Asian art].

"Those are just two specific groups. I've been privileged to be here at a time when the institution has seen its relationships grow by leaps and bounds. Attendance used to run about 150,000 a year; it's now about 250,000 [275,241 in 1992]. Membership, I believe, was 3,600 when I arrived. It's now over 8,000, and we have a goal of 10,000, and I'm sure that within a couple of years we'll be there."

His greatest failure, he says, is "not to have found a way to permanently endow the needs of this institution with an endowment fund three to four times the size it is now -- it's $35 million. Other people look and say, 'You've tripled the endowment,' and I'm extremely proud of that. We've done it with hard work and great fund-raising by the board. But it would have been an extraordinary accomplishment to go to the $100 million mark. We never dug in to try to get there. We had other things on our plate. But it's something I think the future holds for us."

The departing director, whose last full day at the Walters was Friday, would never have been picked to head Cleveland's museum if his years here had not included many more successes than failures, something that could not have been foretold with certainty when he came here in 1981. For he was then untried as a museum official; he had been a teacher of art history at Harvard.

Inevitably, he made mistakes -- notably the termination in early 1984 of two curatorships in such a way that he was widely seen as having fired the two people who held the positions. The act caused protest in the scholarly community, and the director later admitted, "If I had had an understanding then of the political sensitivities, I might well have tried to find a different way."

At the time, it was thought the Walters might as a result have trouble attracting good curators. But that wasn't the case, and today the director views with satisfaction a staff that includes such Bergman appointees as curator of ancient art Ellen D. Reeder, curator of medieval art Gary Vikan, curator of Renaissance and baroque art Joaneath Spicer and curator of Asian art Hiram W. Woodward Jr.

More generally, Mr. Bergman was seen as a person who pushed his staff (as well as himself) relentlessly and gave others too little credit, a fault he, too, acknowledges.

"I guess I do tend to see flaws," admits Mr. Bergman, who will be 48 tomorrow. "Probably I haven't stopped enough to appreciate the brilliance of everyone's accomplishments. I keep moving on to the next thing too rapidly. We don't smell the roses as much as we should."

His drive to "keep moving on," however, has resulted in accomplishments that are a matter of record. People remember what they can see, so Mr. Bergman will inevitably be remembered best for two major projects of his tenure. He oversaw the $6 million renovation of the Walters' original 1904 building, reopened in 1988, and the $7.5 million renovation of Hackerman House, opened in 1991. Both were widely hailed.

Exhibits also constitute a mark of a museum's accomplishment, and during Mr. Bergman's directorship there has been a highly successful string of exhibits that combined scholarship with audience appeal, including "Silver Treasure from Early Byzantium" (1986), "Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours" (1988), "Holy Image, Holy Space: Icons and Frescoes from Greece" (1988), "From Alexander to Cleopatra: Greek Art of the Hellenistic Age" (1989), and the present "Sisley: Master Impressionist" (through June 13).

Mr. Bergman has always emphasized the Walters' commitment to scholarship, and that comes out when "Sisley" comes up.

"This feels right to me, because it is extremely attractive to a broad audience -- everyone loves it -- but it is grounded in very serious scholarship. An international team worked for four or five years, they produced landmark scholarship, they re-evaluated the position of this master in the history of art, and out of that serious work has come an exhibition with broad public appeal. That's what the Walters is all about."

The financial aspect

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