By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
5:03 PM EST, March 7, 2012
Gary Vikan, who has been a dynamic force at the helm of the Walters Art Museum for 18 years, will leave the post of director in June 2013, or when his successor is in place.
"I really made the decision in November 2008, when I was 62," Vikan said, "but that's when the stock market was plummeting. So I picked 65."
The museum weathered the economic downturn successfully, thanks to Vikan's leadership, said Walters board chairman Douglas Hamilton Jr.
"Gary has carried us through the economic downturn," he said. "We've had balanced budgets every year. The museum is very strong. It will be a challenge to find someone with the skill set that Gary personified. But, at the same time, we're very enthusiastic about the future of the Walters Art Museum."
The Minnesota-born Vikan has been at the Walters since 1985, when he was hired as director of curatorial affairs. He was named director of the museum in 1994.
"The average tenure of a museum director is something around six years," Vikan said, "so I am already in the top percentile for longevity."
Baltimore Museum of Art director Doreen Bolger described Vikan's many years of service as "a gift not just to the Walters, but to the broader arts community and the city of Baltimore."
Bolger praised Vikan's advocacy for a free admission policy, which the Walters and BMA successfully adopted in 2006.
"That was my favorite shared moment," Bolger said, "and a great example of his energetic leadership style."
In addition to the dropping of the entrance fee, which generated increased attendance and demographic diversity, Vikan oversaw several other initiatives during his tenure, including the name change from Walters Art Gallery to Walters Art Museum; the raising of more than $65 million for capital and endowment funds; and touring exhibitions.
He also helped to expand greatly the museum's Web presence, including free downloadable images of more than 10,000 items from the museum's collection, and to create a Center for the Arts of the Ancient Americas at the museum.
Hamilton said the board was surprised by the news of Vikan's decision.
"But this was entirely amicable," Hamilton said. "It is a tough job to hold for a lot of years. 'Retirement' can be almost a pejorative word, so that's why we say he is stepping down. Gary is the most high-energy person I know."
Although he would like to see other projects carried through, especially renovation of the Hackerman House, where the Walters' Asian collection is displayed, Vikan said he wants to pursue other activities.
He has written two books that await a publisher — one titled "St. Elvis: From the Holy Land to Graceland," reflecting one of Vikan's passions; the other a collection of about 30 of his "Postcards from the Walters," a series broadcast on WYPR-FM.
Vikan has a third book in mind, about the Shroud of Turin.
"My father worked until he was 78," Vikan said, "so I figure I have 10 years left for something. I want to do something that builds on the three things I've done — my 10 years as a scholar [senior associate for Byzantine art studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington] before coming to the Walters, nine years as a curator, and 18 years as a director."
Vikan has a particular interest in strategic planning and training. He was recently invited to the Salzburg Global Seminar, a think tank that addresses problems and solutions affecting a variety of international issues.
"I like figuring out how things work," Vikan said. "If I can use the skills that can be extracted from being a museum director, it could be a vehicle for teaching."
Vikan, who has taught courses and is a board member at the Johns Hopkins University, will stay on at the museum through the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013. If a successor is hired before then, Hamilton said, Vikan will go on a "well-deserved" sabbatical until that June deadline.
"Gary will be a tough act to follow," Hamilton said. "He has been one of the pre-eminent arts leaders in this region for a long time, and the museum has a much larger footprint internationally today. Some people know how to go out on top."