Renaissance man to run the Walters

Gary Vikan, the newly appointed director of the Walters Art Gallery, could reasonably be called a modern-day Renaissance man.

He's a serious scholar, a person who tackles whatever he does with dedication and skill, whether that be creating catalogs on Byzantine art or writing a paper on Elvis Presley's Graceland. He's a man who on first meeting seems reticent, but is warm and even endearing to those who know him well.


He possesses a wry sense of humor, plays a fair game of golf and can cook up a storm.

But one of the strongest impressions of Dr. Vikan that emerges from talking to colleagues and friends is that he is a multifaceted person who will bring a range of qualities to the job -- not least of which is his sense of right and wrong.


"He stands up for what he thinks is right," says Herbert Kessler, professor of art history at Johns Hopkins University, who has known Dr. Vikan for 25 years. "He says what he means and says it tersely, and he's usually right. People respect him enormously for that.

"On the other hand, partly because of his boyish appearance and sense of humor, it doesn't become abrasive. You know you can't push him around, but it's not an upsetting manner."

Like many others, Thomas Aversano, a Johns Hopkins Hospital cardiologist and personal friend, speaks of Dr. Vikan's "wonderful sense of humor." But he also knows a Gary Vikan the museum-going public doesn't see. "He's a good golfer, and he's one of the best cooks I have ever come across," says Dr. Aversano, who met the new director through their wives eight years ago. "He's one of those rare people who can go to the market, see what's fresh and put it together to create something exquisite. His bible is Julia Child, but he can go beyond the cookbook and do variations on themes. He's really a superb cook."

Among Dr. Vikan's principal tasks in taking over the Walters is the forthcoming renovation of the 1974 building and subsequent reinstallation of its art -- a $6 million project. The building suffers from problems including climate-control defects, fire and security systems below current museum standards, and insufficient accessibility to the handicapped.

He is also expected to spearhead a major fund-raising campaign for the renovations and to add to the gallery's endowment.

In announcing the selection of Dr. Vikan on Tuesday, Walters board president Jay M. Wilson called him "an internationally known scholar and . . . a consummate museum professional -- a skilled administrator, a gifted educator, and a talented communicator."

As a scholar of medieval, particularly Byzantine, art, the 47-year-old Dr. Vikan has won the respect of leaders in his field throughout his career -- from his days as a doctoral student at Princeton to his time as a researcher at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington and, since 1985, as curator at the Walters. Dr. Vikan's major publications include a catalog of sculpture in the Dumbarton Oaks collection and another catalog of "Objects of Daily Byzantine Life in the Menil Collection" of Houston.

"My opinion of him is very high," says Slobodan Curcic, professor of art and archaeology at Princeton. "One of his greatest contributions [to the study of Byzantine art] has been bringing small and seemingly unimportant objects into the context of our consideration culturally and artistically -- objects like coins, seals, pendants, pins, objects of daily life that did not constitute works of art in most people's reckoning."


Henry Maguire, director of Byzantine studies at Dumbarton Oaks, concurs that Dr. Vikan is "a leading scholar of Byzantine art."

He adds, however, that Dr. Vikan is no dry purveyor of esoterica. "He has a flair for organizing exhibitions which are exciting to both specialists and the general public," says Mr. Maguire, speaking of Walters shows such as those on Greek icons and Byzantine silver. "To catch the imagination of the general public when producing exhibitions which are important in the field of Byzantine studies is quite a significant achievement."

Robert P. Bergman, who hired Dr. Vikan at the Walters when he was director, says the new director's ability to balance scholarship and broad appeal is one of his hallmarks. But Dr. Bergman, now director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, emphasizes personal qualities even more.

"He's one of the most objective and fair-minded individuals I've ever had the pleasure of knowing," he says. "In terms of running an institution, that's probably one of the critical qualifications. He doesn't have axes to grind or hidden agendas. Honesty and good faith make him an excellent administrator."

Dr. Bergman touches on one quality that may make some misjudge Dr. Vikan's personality at first acquaintance. "Gary might seem quiet and thoughtful at first blush, but he's endowed with a highly developed sense of humor that might be the first qualification for being a director. He has a sense of the ironic which I think will be very helpful to him and enjoyable to those around him."

Professor Curcic senses the same quality. "When you first meet him, he seems very distant, in part because he's a little bit shy, but behind this is a very warm and lively individual and an extremely effective communicator. His dynamism is easily picked up by those who surround him, and that's important for the leadership role that he has."


Among the outside projects with which Dr. Vikan has been involved is a 10-year effort to decorate Washington's St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in the Byzantine style of the 9th and 10th centuries.

"We wanted authenticity, and with the help of Mr. Vikan we have gotten it," says the Rev. John T. Tavlarides, dean of the cathedral. "He's very certain about his scholarship, yet decidedly sensitive to the way in which he offers his ideas."

On a personal level, says the dean, "he's not only talented but endearing. I like him very much. I think he's a very spiritual man."

Another positive Dr. Vikan brings is his knowledge of the territory -- in the literal, geographic sense.

"He knows Baltimore, and given the way the Walters is embedded in the city, that's quite important," says John Hand, a curator at the National Gallery in Washington who has known Dr. Vikan since they were graduate students at Princeton.

Dr. Vikan lives in Guilford with his wife, Elana, who teaches at Roland Park Country School. They have two daughters, Nicole and Sonia.


The director was born and grew up in Fosston, a northern Minnesota town with a current population of 1,550. He is one of five children of Wilma and the late Franklin Vikan, who owned the Thirteen Towns, a newspaper on which, his mother recalls, all the family worked at one time or another.

He did not show interest in art as a youngster, his mother says. "He was interested in commercial law and mathematics, and we were quite surprised when he went into art history because of an advisor he had at Carleton [College, in Minnesota]. We weren't too sure where that was going to take him, because there are not too many jobs in the field."

The willingness to take up something new when it catches his interest has stayed with him. Perusing his resume, one expects to find entries such as "Art Editor, 'The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium' " and "Co-organizer of symposium on Russian art and culture, Princeton University." But, among his articles: "Graceland as Locus Sanctus"?

Yes, Dr. Vikan is also an Elvis fan.

His paper explores the phenomenon of the star's home as the site of pilgrimages, much like medieval religious pilgrimages. "I'm looking at it as a kind of social phenomenon with the traditional forms of pilgrimage behavior," he says. "Going at significant times, repeat visits, leaving things behind, such as flowers or a message."

And later this month, he's going to give the paper at a symposium at Georgetown University called "2X Immortal: Elvis and Marilyn."


Finally, Allen Rosenbaum, director of the art museum at Princeton, points out another important characteristic exhibited by Dr. Vikan: "He's a very nice man, which I think is not unimportant."