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Walters' Gary Vikan plans update of the 1974 building


Gary Vikan has spent most of his career as a scholar of medieval art. But when he was named director of the Walters Art Gallery in June, he left behind the world of scholarship without looking back.

"I think it's great," he says of his new position. "It could not be more different. I love the texture of activity, the pace. I get up at 6, and there might be a week in a row where I wouldn't get home before 9 o'clock.

"The other thing I like is the kind of holistic view that's involved, so that the quality of the coffee in the cafe is of interest to me, and I know the number of people who had lunch there yesterday. You tune the whole thing to make it work as effectively as you can with the givens you have. And I like the juggling of the long-term theoretical with the short-term practical.

"I even enjoy the political part -- seeing how the city and state governments work and talking to the players. There are a lot of really good people."

It's ironic that many of the things that are so exciting about the job also contribute to its downside.

"The pace of the work is so intense that you really have to be on your toes in order to be proactive instead of reactive," he says. "You have to focus on what's going to make a difference and leave the little things aside."

A youthful 47, Dr. Vikan will need all his energies in the coming years. In addition to running the gallery's day-to-day operation, he will oversee the major job of renovating and reinstalling the Walters' 1974 building. This building houses temporary exhibition galleries and permanent collection galleries for ancient through medieval and 19th-century art. (The 1904 building, housing Renaissance to 18th-century art, was renovated in the 1980s.)

The $6 million renovation, to take place in stages starting next year, may not be finished until 1999 or later.

Much of the renovation will be behind the scenes, such as changing the climate control system to provide a stable environment for the art. At present, temperature and humidity cannot be kept constant. "We need to be able to hold 70-degree temperature and 50-percent relative humidity year-round," says Dr. Vikan, "and when the weather gets really cold is when we do worst."

What the public will notice most after the job is done, however, will be the way things look. Dr. Vikan says there will be major changes.

The 1974 building has long been criticized for its confusing organization of spaces, as contrasted with the crystal-clear organization of the 1904 building, with its central courtyard surrounded by galleries.

"This building was designed . . . with the idea of turning the 1904 building inside out," he says. "The passageways are on the outside, and you go into the center to experience the art instead of going from the courtyard out. I don't think that's ever worked very well."

Diagonals also fight with right angles (or orthogonals), creating confusion. "We talked to, I think, 10 architects on this, and they were all saying the same thing: 'You've got 50 percent of the diagonal and 50 percent of the orthogonal, and unless you take one over the other you're never going to solve the orientation problem.' "

On the fourth floor, site of the 19th-century collection, the diagonals were squared years ago, so the orientation is comparatively clear. But on the third floor, site of the medieval collection, the entering visitor encounters a diagonal wall, and it's not clear in which direction to go. Dr. Vikan would like to open up the space, with a stained-glass window as "signature piece" on the other end, and in between a "center of gravity" toward which the viewer would naturally be drawn.

There are other problems.

"On the second floor [site of ancient art], you get this wonderful pTC marble displayed against slate and stucco. They don't get along with one another. That marble should be the hardest thing in your field of vision. Very possibly we'll go to wood there."

And there's the light. "Our control of light will be much better," the director says. "Marble sculpture needs outdoor light, but it doesn't need it at 45 degrees so that you're looking into it with the sculpture in front of you. It has to be mitigated.

"To more dramatic effect, there is lots of our [medieval] collection on the third floor that needs to be seen in an environment where we can control the light as if it were in the interior of a church. So what we do with windows will be a major change."

Beyond that, the director wants to reduce the ambient noise level in the building, and soften the slate floors and metal ceilings, to improve the public's experience of the art. "To get the quality of intense art encounter that we achieve with some regularity in the temporary exhibition space . . . -- that would be a measure of success."

In terms of reinstallation, Dr. Vikan foresees the possibility of bringing the Egyptian collection down from the second to the first, or entrance, floor to give it greater visibility. Also, he sees moving the temporary exhibition galleries to share the second floor with the rest of ancient art. Final decisions will come later.

Much later. The work won't start until after a master plan is developed next year. At first, work will be confined to minor aspects such as the elevators. Major areas of the building will begin to go dark in early 1996. The first and fourth floors will be dark for a few months; the second and third floors probably for 18 months each, but if possible in sequence, with the third floor worked on first. Thus if the third floor goes dark in the spring of 1996, the building might not be completely reopened until three years after that, when the second floor is finished.

In the interim, some of the art in it will be on view in the 1904 building.

When the areas reopen, Dr. Vikan says, the museum experience will be more welcoming and instructive, thanks in part to new amenities and educational tools.

"The Denver Museum I think has done great things in addressing the comfort and real needs of visitors," he says. "Places to sit down, changes in tempo, chairs that are just placed randomly in a gallery -- you can pull a chair up in front of a work of art and sit there for a while. Retreats or learning centers, places where you might be able to hear an audio or see a video. . . . Maybe have a few books there and maybe have access to music of the period."

Dr. Vikan is considering two systems that provide audio tours of permanent collection galleries, similar to the audio tours now often provided for temporary exhibits.

"There are two new technologies. One is a wand. Put it up to your ear and punch in three numbers that are below the work of art and you get 60 or 80 seconds of [spoken] copy, and then they say if you want to learn more about technique or style you can punch in more numbers. They have several layers. The response from the public is terrific, and I find it very effective because it gets you out of the two-step -- two steps up to read the label and two steps back."

The other technology is CD-Rom. "You actually get a CD-Rom player put over your shoulder. . . . It can do the whole museum." Or it can do those aspects the visitor selects. "You can get a tour for children, a family tour, a tour of animals in art, the director's dozen favorite pieces. What I don't like about it is that by latching onto your head [with earphones], it really makes you a kind of hermetic module, and I think we have to emphasize the social aspect of the art experience."

Dr. Vikan, an education enthusiast, wants to make this technology available to all visitors. "I see both of these as, in effect, electronic labeling, and in that respect they should be available free of charge to everybody."

Of the $6 million budget for the 1974 building, $4 million is for renovation and $2 million for reinstallation. The Walters got $750,000 approved from the state at the 1994 legislative session and will go back for another $750,000 next year. There's a $750,000 city bond issue on the ballot this November, and the director hopes to get National Endowment for the Humanities grants in several categories totaling $1.5 million or more. The balance -- $2.25 million -- is to be raised by a fund-raising effort that will be part of a larger capital campaign, with a goal yet to be determined.

To date, Dr. Vikan says, architects and others who will do the job have not been signed up. But he's eager to get on with it. "In a way we're dealing with the core, and in many respects the best part, of our collection," he says. "What makes the Walters the Walters is so much in that building, and here's our chance to make it shine."

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