New Helmsman at the Walters

July 04, 1993

When Michael P. Mezzatesta arrives in Baltimore later this year to take over the helm of the Walters Art Gallery, he will find a thriving institution in the process of navigating its way through a difficult transition.

Mr. Mezzatesta, director of the Duke University Museum of Art in Durham, N.C., was named last week to succeed Robert Bergman, who headed the Walters since 1981. During that time the museum's budget nearly tripled, from $2.3 million to more than $7 million, while attendance doubled to more than 300,000 visitors a year.

Mr. Bergman, a scholar, administrator and fund-raiser of extraordinary energy and talent, presided over a three-year, $6 million renovation of the museum's original 1904 gallery building on Centre Street. He then plunged into an equally ambitious $7.5 million project that resulted in the opening in 1991 of Hackerman House, Maryland's only museum of Asian art. Meanwhile, the Walters' endowment nearly tripled, from $12 million in 1981 to more than $32 million last year, and private and corporate contributions jumped sevenfold, from $70,000 to over $500,000 in 1992.

In a sense, Mr. Bergman had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. For much of the 1980s, soaring corporate profits, generous tax breaks for the wealthy and rising public support for the arts combined to make an unprecedented level of support available to established institutions like the Walters. But the economic climate has changed dramatically in the 1990s. Mr. Mezzatesta faces the daunting task of managing the Walters' transition from the expansionist phase of the last decade to the hard realities of the present.

The museum's board knew it needed a person who was a jack-of-all-trades, who possessed expertise as a curator and an administrator, with political savvy and a knack for getting along with people. Mr. Mezzatesta seems to fit the bill. A specialist in Renaissance art history, he created exhibits at Duke that demonstrated an impressive range of interests and affinities. He's also known for his energy and perseverance. He will need all that to exploit Walters' treasures to the fullest and perpetuate the Bergman tradition of excellence.

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