Walters' Gary Vikan plans update of the 1974 building

July 31, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Gary Vikan has spent most of his career as a scholar of medieval art. But when he was named director of the Walters Art Gallery in June, he left behind the world of scholarship without looking back.

"I think it's great," he says of his new position. "It could not be more different. I love the texture of activity, the pace. I get up at 6, and there might be a week in a row where I wouldn't get home before 9 o'clock.

"The other thing I like is the kind of holistic view that's involved, so that the quality of the coffee in the cafe is of interest to me, and I know the number of people who had lunch there yesterday. You tune the whole thing to make it work as effectively as you can with the givens you have. And I like the juggling of the long-term theoretical with the short-term practical.

"I even enjoy the political part -- seeing how the city and state governments work and talking to the players. There are a lot of really good people."

It's ironic that many of the things that are so exciting about the job also contribute to its downside.

"The pace of the work is so intense that you really have to be on your toes in order to be proactive instead of reactive," he says. "You have to focus on what's going to make a difference and leave the little things aside."

A youthful 47, Dr. Vikan will need all his energies in the coming years. In addition to running the gallery's day-to-day operation, he will oversee the major job of renovating and reinstalling the Walters' 1974 building. This building houses temporary exhibition galleries and permanent collection galleries for ancient through medieval and 19th-century art. (The 1904 building, housing Renaissance to 18th-century art, was renovated in the 1980s.)

The $6 million renovation, to take place in stages starting next year, may not be finished until 1999 or later.

Much of the renovation will be behind the scenes, such as changing the climate control system to provide a stable environment for the art. At present, temperature and humidity cannot be kept constant. "We need to be able to hold 70-degree temperature and 50-percent relative humidity year-round," says Dr. Vikan, "and when the weather gets really cold is when we do worst."

What the public will notice most after the job is done, however, will be the way things look. Dr. Vikan says there will be major changes.

The 1974 building has long been criticized for its confusing organization of spaces, as contrasted with the crystal-clear organization of the 1904 building, with its central courtyard surrounded by galleries.

"This building was designed . . . with the idea of turning the 1904 building inside out," he says. "The passageways are on the outside, and you go into the center to experience the art instead of going from the courtyard out. I don't think that's ever worked very well."

Diagonals also fight with right angles (or orthogonals), creating confusion. "We talked to, I think, 10 architects on this, and they were all saying the same thing: 'You've got 50 percent of the diagonal and 50 percent of the orthogonal, and unless you take one over the other you're never going to solve the orientation problem.' "

On the fourth floor, site of the 19th-century collection, the diagonals were squared years ago, so the orientation is comparatively clear. But on the third floor, site of the medieval collection, the entering visitor encounters a diagonal wall, and it's not clear in which direction to go. Dr. Vikan would like to open up the space, with a stained-glass window as "signature piece" on the other end, and in between a "center of gravity" toward which the viewer would naturally be drawn.

There are other problems.

"On the second floor [site of ancient art], you get this wonderful pTC marble displayed against slate and stucco. They don't get along with one another. That marble should be the hardest thing in your field of vision. Very possibly we'll go to wood there."

And there's the light. "Our control of light will be much better," the director says. "Marble sculpture needs outdoor light, but it doesn't need it at 45 degrees so that you're looking into it with the sculpture in front of you. It has to be mitigated.

"To more dramatic effect, there is lots of our [medieval] collection on the third floor that needs to be seen in an environment where we can control the light as if it were in the interior of a church. So what we do with windows will be a major change."

Beyond that, the director wants to reduce the ambient noise level in the building, and soften the slate floors and metal ceilings, to improve the public's experience of the art. "To get the quality of intense art encounter that we achieve with some regularity in the temporary exhibition space . . . -- that would be a measure of success."

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