Hackerman House gives the once under-appreciated Walters a forceful, emphatic boost


It was just a year ago that crowds first surged through Hackerman House, the Walters Art Gallery's home for Asian art on Mount Vernon Place.

The excitement and the crowds have continued over the 12 months since that jubilant opening. Some 250,000 people have visited the Walters since then, setting an attendance record for the institution. Before Hackerman House and the renovation of the 1904 main gallery, the Walters drew far fewer visitors, about 140,000 a year.

The attendance record is an amazing accomplishment for a museum that, despite its major treasures and exceedingly rich collections, remained under-appreciated in Baltimore. People here seemed to acknowledge the institution but infrequently or rarely got around to visiting it.

The Hackerman House has given the museum a forceful and emphatic presence at the foot of the Washington Monument. By comparison, the two Walters galleries along Centre Street seem like they are sunk in a valley. Hackerman House is at the top, facing the monument, the Peabody and other landmarks.

"The whole square has now come to peace," said Walters director Robert Bergman in an assessment of Hackerman House and its contributions to the entire museum.

"The attention we got, nationally and internationally, and the level of praise was so far beyond my expectations it was mind boggling," Bergman said.

He said the Walters has become the country's "single most written about" art museum outside of New York and Washington. He credits numerous newspaper articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post with giving his institution national exposure.

Just as the Orioles have tapped the Washington area's population base to sell tickets, the Walters looks to the District and its suburbs as an important source for patrons.

He also credits the quality of a Walters exhibition, its standards of scholarship, display and presentation with attracting visitors.

"When we mount a show, we really try to make it look terrific. I think we succeed," Bergman said.

An unanticipated effect that Hackerman House has had on the Walters is donations. Nearly 600 Japanese prints have been donated to the museum now that it has an Asian display wing.

Since it opened as a completely public institution in the 1930s, the scholarly, chaste and commercially disinterested Walters never offered visitors a place to eat. This changed with Hackerman House. The Pavilion, a restaurant which opened for lunch last May, has proven itself.

On any day, carefully dressed matrons enjoy their salads and desserts in a setting right out of downtown Baltimore in the 1950s. It could be the Flower Mart or Hutzler's Tea Room. There has been another surprise. The restaurant has also caught on with the business community. It's become the place to have a power lunch.

The Pavilion recently opened for dinner on Thursday and Friday evenings. Bergman said the dinner service has been modestly successful and he foresees it catching on as people talk it up.

He's also promoting the Walters to the city's many ethnic groups -- Asians, Poles, Jews, Hispanics, Greeks and African-Americans.

"The largest single attendance day in the history of the Walters was African-American Day held this past February. We are told it was the largest single-attended event in the city for African-American history month," Bergman said.

The city contributes nearly $2.2 million a year to keep the museum's doors open. The surrounding counties give a combined $100,000. Bergman said he hopes the counties' contribution eventually matches that of the city.

"I saw a long line of Baltimore County school buses parked along Centre Street. What does that say?" the director said.

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