N.C. museum director to head Walters Choice has worked at Duke, in Texas

June 29, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Michael P. Mezzatesta, director of the Duke University Museum of Art in Durham, N.C., will be named the director of the Walters Art Gallery in a news conference at City Hall this afternoon. He is expected to assume the post in November.

The announcement will end the nine-month search for the gallery's fifth director since it opened to the public in 1934. Last September, the director, Robert P. Bergman, announced that he had accepted the director's position at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Mr. Bergman left the Walters last month.

Mr. Mezzatesta, 45, has been director at Duke since 1987. Before that he was curator of European art at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. He is a specialist in Renaissance art history, but also has curated shows and published writings outside his field of specialization. He has organized exhibitions ranging from the Baroque sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini to the 20th-century artist Henri Matisse. Exhibits during his tenure at Duke have ranged from Mayan art to the American contemporary artist Jackson Pollock and the 20th-century architect Louis I. Kahn.

A noted accomplishment at Duke was the institution of a series called "SoHo at Duke" in which undergraduates in the art history program curated exhibitions of art borrowed from galleries in New York's trendy SoHo section.

"He got the campus interested in art more than anybody else who's ever been in that position," said Gaillard Ravenel, senior curator and director of design at the National Gallery in Washington. Mr. Ravenel graduated from Duke and has been associated with projects there during Mr. Mezzatesta's tenure. "I think he has a fabulous range in terms of the arts that he's interested in. And he's got a lot of energy and great perseverance. Once he sets his mind on doing a project, he sees it through."

Edmund Pillsbury, director of the Kimbell and Mr. Mezzatesta's boss there, suggested that Mr. Mezzatesta was a good choice for the Walters, which has an encyclopedic collection of Western art and a major collection of Asian art.

"He's extremely well grounded and broadly trained for his new responsibilities," said Mr. Pillsbury. "I think it's a good, solid appointment for the Walters, and Michael is really ready to take on a big challenge and young enough to mold himself into being an effective director. Following the success of Bob Bergman, I can't think of anybody better primed to take advantage of some of Bob's achievements."

A source at the Walters who spoke on condition of anonymity yesterday said Mr. Mezzatesta appealed to the search committee because of his curatorial background and for his strong record of administration, public outreach and fund-raising three principal qualities the Walters was seeking in a new director.

"His versatility was a deciding factor of the search committee," said the source, "and that was considered particularly important because he inherits a museum in transition."

The Walters underwent major building projects during Mr. Bergman's tenure, renovating its original 1904 building and the adjacent Hackerman House, which became a home for the gallery's Asian collection. Now the gallery -- one of the city's top public cultural institutions and nationally recognized for its wide-ranging collections -- faces a period in which it is more difficult for arts organizations to raise money. One of the new director's major tasks may be a capital fund drive to increase the gallery's endowment, now about $32 million.

Because of his strong curatorial experience, Mr. Mezzatesta also is expected to take a major interest in organizing shows, perhaps raising the gallery's profile as an originator of major national and international touring shows.

A native of New York, he has a B.A. from Columbia College and a Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts, both in New York.

In a statement prepared for release today, Jay M. Wilson, president of the Walters board of trustees, which selected Mr. Mezzatesta, said: "He was chosen as the result of an exhaustive national search from a field of more than two dozen highly qualified candidates. Michael is an exceptional scholar, administrator and educator."

Mr. Mezzatesta, who was in Baltimore yesterday, said in a prepared statement: "I hope we can expand the Walters' programs to offer an even richer museum experience."

Neither man returned phone calls yesterday.

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