Robert Bergman, former director of Walters, dies

During his tenure, museum was restyled

May 07, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Robert P. Bergman, the college art professor turned museum director who oversaw two major renovations and transformed the once-stuffy Walters Art Gallery during his tenure from 1981 to 1993, died early yesterday in Cleveland after a brief illness. He was 53.

Dr. Bergman's death surprised friends and associates here and in Cleveland, where he had served as director of the Cleveland Museum of Art since leaving Baltimore.

A statement issued by the Cleveland museum said Dr. Bergman had entered the hospital April 26, complaining of back and neck pains.

FOR THE RECORD - In yesterday's obituary of former Walters Art Gallery director Robert P. Bergman, the date given for the memorial service at the Cleveland Museum of Art was incorrect. The memorial service will be held May 15.
In addition, the name of Adena Testa, president of the Walters board of trustees, was misspelled, as was the name of the museum's Hackerman House.
The Sun regrets the errors.
Pub Date: 5/08/99

"We're all shocked it happened so suddenly," said a spokesman for the Cleveland museum, Bill Prenevost. "He was so vivacious and always had so much energy. That was everybody's picture of him."

A spokesman for University Hospitals of Cleveland, where Dr. Bergman was being treated, said he died from hemo-phagocytic syndrome, a rare disease in which blood cells that normally devour unwanted pathogens turn against the body's own cells and destroy them.

In Baltimore, the Walters' current director, Gary Vikan, praised Dr. Bergman as a gifted administrator and indefatigable advocate for the arts.

Created `a new attitude'

"His legacy went far beyond the physical transformations in the museum to opening up the institution to the entire community, making it a vital part of Baltimore," Mr. Vikan said. "His way of presenting works of art had everything to do with creating a new attitude of warmth and welcoming."

During his 12 years at the Walters, Dr. Bergman oversaw the renovation of the museum's 1904 building, which reopened in 1988, and the opening of the Hackman House gallery of Asian art in 1991.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was in changing the museum's reputation from that of a clubby haven for connoisseurs to an institution eminently accessible to the public.

"He transformed the way the Walters relates to the community," said Dina Testa, president of the Walters board of trustees.

"His career was basically guided by Henry Walters' wish to operate the museum for the benefit of the public. As a result, he had a strong influence on how the city's other cultural institutions viewed their role as well."

Baltimore Museum of Art Director Doreen Bolger called Dr. Bergman "irreplaceable."

"Bob made a huge mark on everyone he knew, on every institution he served, on every cause he championed," she said.

A native of New Jersey, Dr. Bergman received his bachelor of arts degree from Rutgers University and his master's in fine arts and doctorate degrees from Princeton, where he specialized in medieval Italian art.

He received many awards and grants, including the Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships and the Rome Prize Fellowship of the American Academy in Rome.

Mr. Vikan said Dr. Bergman wrote his doctoral dissertation on the carved ivory figures from Amalfi, near Florence, and returned there on sabbatical in 1988.

"He loved everything Italian," Mr. Vikan said. "And he remained committed to that field all his life, though he had to give up some of the time he could give to it as a scholar when he became a museum director."

Before coming to the Walters, Dr. Bergman taught art history at Princeton and Harvard universities. He began his teaching career in 1969 as visiting instructor at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa., the nation's oldest historically black college.

As director of the Walters, Dr. Bergman worked to strengthen the relationship between the museum and the academic world. He became a faculty member in the art history department at the Johns Hopkins University and gave his lectures to students in the museum's galleries.

An extension of teaching

"Bob always said being a museum director was just an extension of his teaching on a bigger scale," said Kate Sellers, who served as acting director of the Walters after Dr. Bergman's departure for Cleveland and later followed him there to become deputy director of the Cleveland museum.

"He was a great teacher who enjoyed exposing people to art and turning them on to the riches in the museum," Ms. Sellers said. "He wanted to excite people about art, and he was wonderful with any kind of communication -- he could communicate with politicians, the elderly, school kids, art connoisseurs, as well as people who didn't know anything about art."

In Cleveland, Dr. Bergman reorganized the museum's departments and oversaw a dramatic increase in attendance, from about 400,000 visitors annually when he arrived to more than 600,000 in recent years.

Three of the highest-attended exhibitions in the Cleveland museum's history occurred on his watch, including a show on the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, one on the art of Faberge and one on treasures from the Vatican, which he co-curated.

Dr. Bergman was equally effective as an advocate for the arts. While director of the Walters, he served a term as president of the American Association of Museum Directors.

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