The Walters' happy warrior

Our view: Gary Vikan steps down as director of the Walters Art Museum after a job well done

March 10, 2012

The average tenure of an American museum director is about six years. It's a tough job, requiring the gifts of a scholar-historian, expert business manager, public relations genius and civic booster all rolled into one, and it's definitely not for the faint of heart. Yet Gary Vikan, who announced this week that he is stepping down as director of the Walters Art Museum after 18 years in the post, not only made it look easy but seemed to enjoy every minute of it.

Mr. Vikan's long tenure at the Walters saw a significant expansion of the museum's collections and programs as well as its presence in the community and online. He helped transform a once-sleepy institution that few people visited into an art world powerhouse — but just as important, he also made it into one of the hippest spots in town for locals to gather. That was in keeping with his belief that museums must be accessible to the public they serve and that working to get all sorts of people through the door is as integral to their mission as preserving and exhibiting the world-class artworks in their care.

People often think of a museum director's accomplishments in terms of bricks-and-mortar projects completed or fat endowments cajoled from wealthy donors. Mr. Vikan did all that and more, presiding over a $37 million renovation of the Walters' Centre Street building, with its spectacular new atrium lobby and beautifully reinstalled collections, while doubling the museum's endowment and operating budget. As if that weren't enough, he also managed to add important new collections of Ethiopian, Asian and ancient American art to the Walters' holdings.

No one can compile a record of achievement like that without having to make tough decisions — think of his courageous choice in 2000 to change the institution's name from the old Walters Art Gallery to the Walters Art Museum. Mr. Vikan was convinced the change would raise the museum's profile among visitors to the city, even though skeptics argued he was betraying a venerable Baltimore tradition. In the end, he was right and they were wrong.

But the toughest decision Mr. Vikan ever made — and the one, we think, with the happiest consequences for Baltimore — was the leap of faith that led him, in 2006, to join with the Baltimore Museum of Art's Doreen Bolger in making admission to their museums free. Many people still don't realize how complicated the financial issues at stake were, or how uncertain the outlook appeared if things hadn't gone as planned. Yet it has been such a resounding success that today hardly anyone even remembers what things were like before.

That episode highlighted what perhaps has been the defining quality of Mr. Vikan's tenure leading the Walters. It's an ability to quickly cut to the heart of matters, to recognize new opportunities and grasp their significance, to take the best ideas from those around him, think about them creatively and successfully turn them into reality. For lack of a better word, it's the mindset that people call vision, and Mr. Vikan has shown he possesses it in abundance.

You can see it in nearly every exhibition the Walters has mounted over the years. On Monday, for example, the Walters will host a symposium on a subject dear to Mr. Vikan's heart: The relation between aesthetic pleasure and the science of the brain. The event is part of the exhibition "Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture: Exploring the Appeal of Renaissance Statuettes," which combines rigorous art historical scholarship with cutting-edge neuroscience developed by Hopkins medical researchers. It will allow viewers to directly experience the tactile qualities of these exquisite pieces for the first time.

It's probably safe to say only Mr. Vikan could have recognized the intimate connections between these two vastly different fields and brought them together in such an original way, all the while delighting in the pleasure it might give the museum's visitors. We wish him the best in all his future endeavors, of which we are certain he will have many, and thank him for his dedication, imagination and the great service he has done on behalf of the citizens of Baltimore, for whom his efforts to educate, enlighten and inform have been tireless.

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