Museum man for the masses

Robert Bergman: Late director helped Walters Art Gallery adapt to contemporary reality.

May 10, 1999

ROBERT P. Bergman was an obscure Harvard scholar with little hands-on museum experience when the Walters Art Gallery picked him to succeed the late Richard H. Randall as director in 1981.

The Walters was a treasure belonging to the people of Baltimore who did not necessarily know it. Like other museums, it had an open-door policy but did not shout about it. Its reputation for insular clubbiness was a bad rap but self-fulfilling.

Mr. Bergman in 12 years presided over the Walters' transformation, in which it persuaded people not only to come in but to pay to do so, to belong as members and -- most important -- to feel the space is their own. Along the way, scholarship and the Walters' reputation among peer institutions remained high.

The 1904 building was modernized spectacularly as a setting for Renaissance and older art. Most of the modernist 1974 wing is closed for renovations to catch up with the old palazzo.

When the chance came to acquire the house at 1 Mount Vernon Place, Mr. Bergman came up with the idea of preserving it as a wealthy 19th century gentleman's townhouse while concentrating the Walters' great unseen Asian holdings there. This did not sound persuasive until it was done. Hackerman House is a majestic component of the Walters Art Gallery.

Bob Bergman's success here led the Cleveland Museum of Art to lure him away in 1993. Despite its stronger financial position and free admission, that museum needed to persuade the people of Cleveland that it exists for them and that great art is both exciting and everyone's business. Mr. Bergman went a long way toward achieving those goals there.

His death Thursday of a sudden and rare blood disease deprives the nation of a leader who, at 53, had many more contributions to make to public arts institutions.

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