The Headless Museum

November 12, 1993

The Walters Art Gallery's failure to have a new director in place, 14 months after Robert P. Bergman announced his resignation, six months after he departed and five months after a successor was named, is dispiriting. Cancellation of the appointment of Michael P. Mezzatesta, shortly before he was to have moved in, puts the enterprise back to Square One.

There's no doubt the Walters needs a director, though its curators continue to mount splendid shows set in motion before Mr. Bergman left. The Walters Art Gallery, owned by the citizens of Baltimore City through their mayor and council, desperately requires a new director to chart the museum's path to a solid future at a time when city support could well diminish.

The next director should hit the ground running to raise funds for a renovation of the "new" wing, which opened in 1974, and which has needed restoration ever since the original 1904 building was refurbished to a high standard. To put the Walters on a footing among major art museums that its collection justifies requires boosting the endowment. Only a strong director with a secure tenure can accomplish that.

This breakdown in communications between the Walters trustees and Mr. Mezzatesta apparently came some time in October (he was seen milling about outside the Walters on Oct. 16 when demonstrators against the patriarch of Ethiopia prompted cancellation of the members' opening of Ethiopian religious art). Whether over remuneration or over his priority for contemporary art, it suggests that understandings were not firm enough at the time of his announced appointment in June.

In a region with substantial yet finite resources for major art exhibition, the effective turf division between the Baltimore Museum of Art (modern) and the Walters Art Gallery (before 1900) works well for patrons of both. The Walters does not have sufficient acquisition funds to collect contemporary art, either to its own standard for other periods or to the BMA's standard for modern art, unless a major modern collection were to land on its doorstep from heaven.

The Walters trustees at least were better off canceling Mr. Mezzatesta's directorship before arrival rather than after. But the self-perpetuating board ought to be more candid with the gallery's owners -- the city government and the city's residents -- about what happened. And now they ought to get smartly about the business of picking a director with whom they can live. The Walters has been leaderless for too long.

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