Artistic expression

Gary Vikan's creative thinking has helped raise the profile of the Walters — and led him to an intriguing theory on pop culture and holiness

  • Gary Vikan has been at The Walters Art Museum for 25 years, starting as a curator, and then as director for the last 16 years. He is holding a music box figurine from his collection of Elvis Presley mementoes on display in his office.
Gary Vikan has been at The Walters Art Museum for 25 years, starting… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
November 19, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

A photograph snapped in 1947 shows a small blond boy in a Cub Scout uniform looking squarely into the camera. Liberal amounts of Wildroot gel have been applied to his hair, which goes up over his forehead in a pompadour — just like his idol, Elvis Presley.

The young Gary Vikan is standing directly in front of a framed reproduction of Warner Sallman's iconic 1941 painting, "Head of Christ," and Jesus appears to be whispering something into the 10-year-old's right ear.

The photo is very nearly a time capsule, or a message in a bottle. It is a marvelously succinct prediction of the man the boy would become.

"The point," says Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum, "is that I was simultaneously attuned to Jesus, Elvis and the power of images painted on canvas to move viewers."

Vikan indulges all three passions in his soon-to-be-completed book, "St. Elvis: From the Holy Land to Graceland."

The manuscript demonstrates Vikan's happy knack for sprinkling esoteric topics with the fairy dust of popular culture, with the people and events on the minds of ordinary folk, right now.

And that's why under Vikan's leadership, the Walters has been competing outside its class. A $14 million budget qualifies the Walters as a middleweight institution, but you'd never know it given the museum's growing prominence in the nation and world.

But Vikan's most enduring accomplishment may be that he is rethinking the largely passive role museums have traditionally played. Under his watch, the Walters has ventured into such foreign terrain as science and international relations. Instead of functioning merely as a repository of great works, Vikan is positioning the Walters as a tool that can help solve real-world problems.

"Gary is one of a dozen or so thought leaders in the museum field in the United States," says Philip Nowlen, director of the Getty Leadership Institute, a California-based professional development group for visual arts administrators.

"Because of the strange chemistry of his mind, he is not constrained by the usual ways in which museums confront their environments. He is more interested in finding out what the right questions are than in coming up with niftier, easier ways to do the same old things on Monday morning."

Indeed, the 62-year-old Vikan seems to here, there and everywhere: lecturing on the Shroud of Turin (he'll bet money that it was made during the Middle Ages) or on Nazi art theft during World War II (on which he is a world authority) — or writing a book about Elvis.

The manuscript is a scholarly yet tongue-in-cheek look at the human desire to attribute supernatural powers to charismatic people. Such well-known tabloid fodder as Princess Di, Michael Jackson and John F. Kennedy share page space with Simeon the Stylite, a holy man in the fifth century A.D. who spent 37 years sitting on top of a 50-foot pillar with his head, literally and figuratively, in the clouds.

Since he was in graduate school at Princeton University, Vikan has focused his research on the art made by early Christian pilgrims. In 1987, he was reading a newspaper article about Elvis Week at Graceland, and something about the frenzied devotion seemed familiar.

"This was a world I understood," he says.

Instead of fans, Vikan saw worshippers. In place of tacky souvenirs, he saw relics. The bizarre rumors swirling about Elvis — including that the singer had faked his own death — were no stranger than the miracles attributed to saints.

In "St. Elvis," Vikan takes his theory one step farther. He thinks he can predict which current celebrities will exert a lasting hold on the public based on the presence of certain key indicators. (Hint: The cult of the King of Pop may be short-lived.)

"If the model is valid, it will be predictive," Vikan says. "Without Neverland as a focus, it's hard to imagine that Michael will become a secular saint on the order of Elvis. There are no holy relics, and there is no place where mourners can gather to commune with Michael's spirit. People can go to Graceland, but they can't visit Neverland."

Despite all of this intellectual gadding about, Vikan carefully tends his home turf. Since he took over the reins in 1994, the Walter's endowment has grown from $38 million to $75 million, the annual budget has more than doubled and attendance has held steady at 200,000 visitors a year. Vikan also secured major collections of artwork from India, Southeast Asia and the Americas.

It's impressive that the Walters emerged from the recent recession debt-free — though at a cost that includes laying off seven staff members and canceling a planned exhibit. Vikan himself gave up a month's pay.

"Gary managed the museum with great discipline through an extremely trying period when other institutions have struggled and some did not survive," says Peter Bain, the president of the Walters' board of directors. "Now, we have no debt and we're putting on world-class exhibitions."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.