Gauguin Was a Hit!

January 22, 1995

The 99,400 people who visited the Walters Art Gallery to see "Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven" made the two-month-long exhibition, which closed last weekend, one of the most popular in the museum's history. Only the 1993 retrospective of Impressionist master Alfred Sisley drew more patrons -- and the Sisley show ran a month longer.

The Walters is trying to reach out to a wider audience, not only locally but nationally. The chance to put on a show as beautiful as the Gauguin exhibition was a perfect opportunity to move toward that goal. People came from Pennsylvania, Washington and Northern Virginia as well as from the Baltimore region to see these lovely works.

This was also a show that could be appreciated on multiple levels; one didn't need an advanced degree in art history to enjoy its many delights. And while the Gauguins were obviously the main attraction, the biggest surprise lay in some of the other painters on display, particularly Emile Bernard, Gauguin's colleague and collaborator, who became one of the show's great discoveries.

The Walters, which is known for its collections of Classical Greek and Roman art and its Renaissance masters, returns to its forte next fall with a new show, "Pandora's Box: Women in Classical Greece." This will be the first big international exhibition to be conceived, organized and circulated entirely by the Walters, as opposed to being rented from another institution. It marks a major evolution in the museum's development under director Gary Vikan that complements his ambitious plans to raise public awareness of the Walters among art lovers throughout the Eastern Seaboard.

In a related development, the Walters recently brought on board a new director of development and visitor services, Donna C. Wilson. Ms. Wilson's title reflects the key to the Walters' new emphasis on reaching out to a broader audience: to become more visitor-oriented as opposed to object-oriented.

"There are probably 50,000 or 60,000 people who wouldn't normally visit us who came to see the Gauguin show," said Walters public relations director Howard White. "That's why this kind of show is so important to us. Unless you get them in the door so they can actually see, you never capture them as art lovers." The Gauguin show offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a fascinating collection that may never be assembled in one place again. It was the perfect springboard for the museum's new, more visitor-oriented course, and by all accounts it succeeded brilliantly.

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