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Walters director is top contender for Cleveland post


Robert P. Bergman, director of the Walters Art Gallery since 1981, is a leading contender for the soon-to-be-vacant post of director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Mr. Bergman was named by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer's art critic in an article on Saturday on potential new leadership at the large, well-endowed museum there. Another man considered a candidate for the Cleveland job agreed yesterday on Mr. Bergman's status as a leading contender.

And a knowledgeable Baltimore source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Bergman is a top contender, or one of the top contenders, for the Cleveland post.

The same Baltimore source said that the Walters director also is a contender for the director's post at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, whose last director, Earl A. (Rusty) Powell III, has been named to head the National Gallery in Washington.

If Mr. Bergman is offered the Cleveland position, the Baltimore source said, it may be because he has overseen two major renovations at the Walters, and the Cleveland museum is due for a plant renovation.

Mr. Bergman is vacationing in the south of France and could not be reached for comment. Nor could the Walters' board president, Jay M. Wilson.

In his 11 years at the Walters, Mr. Bergman has become known as a tough and effective leader, able to get difficult jobs done and willing to drive himself and his staff hard.

He supervised both the $6 million renovation of the Walters' original, 1904 building, and the $7 million conversion of Hackerman House from a 19th century town house into the Walters' museum of Asian art. Both projects were widely hailed.

Near the outset of his tenure in Baltimore, in 1983-1984, he created a furor in the world of art scholarship by eliminating the jobs of two curators of ancient art and replacing them with a third.

One of the curators who lost her job, Diana Buitron-Oliver, is the guest curator for a major exhibit of classical Greek sculpture to open at the National Gallery in November.

At the time of the Walters upheaval, it was predicted in art world circles that such a move would make it difficult for the Walters to attract scholarly curators in the future. But that did not prove the case.

Aside from the two major renovations, Mr. Bergman's tenure has seen the mounting of many exhibits, from Hellenistic art to southwestern American religious sculpture, notable both for content and presentation.

The Cleveland newspaper's article, written by art critic Steven Litt, reported that Mr. Bergman was one of three top candidates for the Cleveland post and that the other two, Edmund Pillsbury, director of the Kimbell Museum of art in Fort Worth, Texas, and Alan Shestack, director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, had both withdrawn.

Reached in Boston yesterday, Mr. Shestack said he had been "approached by the head hunter doing the search" for Cleveland, but had withdrawn because of "deep commitments here in Boston." He said he did not know whether Mr. Bergman might be a leading candidate for the Cleveland job.

But Mr. Pillsbury, reached in Fort Worth, said that "according to my sources" it is "a strong possibility" that Mr. Bergman "is the preliminary if not the final choice of the [Cleveland] search committee." He said he was not, himself, a contender for the job. He also observed that "sometimes these things fall apart."

He called Mr. Bergman a "sensible choice" for the Cleveland post who has a "strong record, good scholarly credentials and is highly respected."

The Plain Dealer article said that Cleveland Museum board president Michael Sherwin would only term Mr. Bergman a "strong" candidate among a number of contenders for the post. Mr. Sherwin could not be reached yesterday.

The Cleveland museum is one of the nation's most respected, with major collections and a large endowment. The present director, Evan H. Turner, announced earlier this year that he would be retiring as of June 1993.

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