Feting a man who gave the Walters a new identity

Catching Up With ... Gary Vikan

Under Gary Vikan, museum underwent a personality and name change

April 04, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

If museum director Gary Vikan had any inkling of the surprise in store for him at this year's annual dinner for the Walters Art Museum board of trustees, he certainly didn't show it.

The festive event, held recently in the marbled sculpture gallery of the Walters' elegant 1904 building, seemed to be drawing to a close when Vikan approached the podium to deliver a few remarks and introduce board president Bill Paternotte after desert was served.

"This year we've decided to add a little twist," Paternotte began.

Turning to a startled Vikan, Paternotte said, "Gary, all of us honor you on your 10th anniversary as director," he said. "And tonight we've gathered a small group of people who know you to help us. What we have in mind is not a roast, it's more of a toast."

His comment was apt: For Vikan and the Walters, the last 10 years have been a fast-paced ride of change and growth, both personal and institutional.

When Vikan was hired at the Walters by then-director Robert Bergman in 1985, he was a conscientious but somewhat shy scholar-curator who spent much of his time tending the precious objects in the museum's medieval collection and virtually none dealing with the public.

Today, Vikan is the museum's most recognizable public face and an increasingly visible presence on the national scene as a spokesman for arts policy. And the museum he heads has gone from one with a reputation for almost hermetic indifference to the world to one widely recognized as among the art world's most forward-looking institutions.

"When I first lived in downtown Baltimore in the mid-1960s, the Walters was a very sleepy place that nobody visited and nobody was encouraged to visit," Paternotte recalled.

"Gary has created a vast range of programs and an environment in which lots of people feel welcome and attracted to the Walters. That's a major accomplishment."

'Realizing our best'

The institutional changes are visible everywhere -- in the $37 million renovation of the museum's Centre Street building, with its gleaming new lobby and beautifully reinstalled collections of ancient, medieval and 19th-century art, in important new collections of Ethiopian, Asian and ancient American art that Vikan has championed, and in the continuing renovation of the Renaissance and Baroque galleries, scheduled to reopen in 2005.

Meanwhile, the museum's endowment grew from $38 million to $60 million and its operating budget rose from $6.5 million to nearly $14 million. Membership and attendance are both up, with some 200,000 visitors a year. The museum even changed its name -- from Walters Art Gallery to Walters Art Museum -- during Vikan's tenure.

"Change is always challenging," Vikan says of the difference between his new and old self -- and that of his museum. "But I've always thought the collection and the opportunities here were enormous and that my job was to be a catalyst for realizing our best. That's the thing we always are striving for."

Though the original impetus for the Walters' transformation may be traced back to the Berg-man years, Vikan has definitely put his own stamp on the place.

"Gary has married scholarship and understanding of the public role of the museum in a very deep way, so that the museum has developed way beyond where Bob had taken it in terms of quality, programs and involvement with community," Paternotte noted. "He's tremendously expanded the work that Bob started."

"Being a museum director is a continuous performance," says Baltimore Museum of Art Doreen Bolger, who credits Vikan with having found a good balance between his love for art and the huge responsibilities that go with being a museum director. "There are no intermissions, no dark nights -- and there are always new lines to learn," Bolger says. "It becomes not only a professional issue but a personal commitment. Gary has had to made difficult decisions, I'm sure, about where to put his energy and talent, and to have done that successfully for 10 years is a pretty amazing thing."

Widening the audience

Despite recent cutbacks in public arts funding -- over the last three years the museum has lost some $700,000 in state and local grants -- Vikan is still upbeat, even ambitious, about the Walters' future.

"We still desperately need storage space, which hasn't been expanded in 100 years, we need larger exhibition space and more space for the art that's being given to us, and more office space as our staff expands," he says.

Yet colleagues suggest the underlying motivation of Vikan's efforts has less to do with brick-and-mortar projects and empire-building than with his personal passion for bringing art to the widest possible audience.

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