Walters selects one of its own

April 13, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

The Walters Art Gallery's lengthy search for a new director ended yesterday when the museum hired one of its own -- Gary Vikan, who has served the past nine years as assistant director for curatorial affairs and curator of medieval art.

Dr. Vikan is "uniquely qualified to lead the Walters into the 21st century," Jay M. Wilson, president of the gallery's board of directors, said in announcing the choice. "He is an internationally known scholar, . . . a skilled administrator, a gifted educator and a talented communicator."

Dr. Vikan, 47, was chosen after a nationwide search, said Adena Testa, the board's president-elect and head of the search committee, who praised him as "committed to building on the past and moving forward" and "one who loves this institution."

She declined to name the other candidates but said, "Gary went through exactly the same process."

In assuming the post, Dr. Vikan said, "Our challenge now . . . is twofold -- to maintain an ever-expanding audience for the visual arts, in both breadth and diversity, and at the same time to secure a financial base adequate to sustain growth into the 21st century."

Dr. Vikan's appointment brings to an end a 19-month search, during which the gallery last June offered the job to Duke University Museum of Art Director Michael Mezzatesta, then withdrew its offer before he was to take over in November, citing "irreconcilable differences."

Ms. Testa said yesterday that the board had asked Dr. Vikan to apply for the job the first time around but he declined.

When it approached him again in December, he agreed.

In recent months, "I saw the obligations of the directorship [as] . . . gratifying and satisfying," he said.

The new director is a known quantity to both board and staff, a veteran of the Walters thoroughly familiar with its management style. He will head an institution in the process of regrouping after major expansion under his predecessor.

During the 1980s, then-Director Robert Bergman presided over a major restoration of the Walters' original 1904 building, the addition of Hackerman House as the Walters Museum of Asian Art, the increase of the annual budget from $2.3 million to more than $7 million and the increase of endowment from $12 million to more than $32 million.

Dr. Vikan's principal tasks will include the proposed renovation of the Walters' 1974 building, which is suffering a range of problems, including climate control defects, fire and security systems below current museum standards, and insufficient accessibility to the disabled.

He also is expected to spearhead a major capital campaign to raise money for the renovation and ensure the museum's long-term financial stability by increasing its endowment.

In recent months, Dr. Vikan has been taking on a more visible leadership role.

In February, he testified before legislators in Annapolis, seeking $1.5 million from the state toward the $6 million renovation of the gallery's 1974 wing. The gallery received $750,000 from the state, and Dr. Vikan said yesterday that it will reapply for the rest of the money next year.

In June, the Walters announced that Dr. Mezzatesta would succeed Mr. Bergman, who resigned to become director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

But on Nov. 11, less than three weeks before Dr. Mezzatesta was to have taken office, the board withdrew its offer.

Board President Jay M. Wilson cited "irreconcilable differences between Dr. Mezzatesta's mission and values, and those of the Walters Art Gallery."

In a subsequent exchange of letters, Mr. Wilson charged Dr. Mezzatesta with wanting a $50,000 discretionary fund for his personal use and with making contemporary art too large a part of his agenda, among other things.

Dr. Mezzatesta disputed the charges, calling them "red herrings," and blamed the situation on "an internal political problem, chiefly curatorial." But he refused to name names.

Dr. Vikan said yesterday that Dr. Mezzatesta's problems at the Walters had nothing to do with him.

"I was on the search committee [that initially picked Dr. Mezzatesta] and supported his candidacy," Dr. Vikan said.

Reached at Duke University yesterday, Dr. Mezzatesta said he was "not at all surprised" at the appointment of Dr. Vikan, but refused to comment further.

Dr. Vikan, a respected Byzantine art scholar, came to the Walters in 1984 from Dumbarton Oaks Library and Collection in Washington, where he had been senior associate for Byzantine art studies.

At the Walters, he has been responsible for many well-received exhibitions, including "Holy Image, Holy Space: Icons and Frescoes from Greece," "Gates of Mystery: The Art of Holy Russia" and last fall's "African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia."

Dr. Vikan is a native of Minnesota and a graduate of Carleton College with a doctorate from Princeton University.

He has been a Kress Fellow at Princeton and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and president of the Byzantine Studies Conference.

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