On Display: Gary Vikan’s New Memoir

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Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director, offers an uneven, spirited, and engaging read by Kerr Houston

In late September of 1995, at the opening of the Walters Art Gallery’s celebrated Going for Baroque exhibition, the museum’s new director, Gary Vikan, was approached by a stranger. A large man, the fellow was shirtless beneath a leather trench coat, and a tattooed strand of barbed wire ran around his neck. As Vikan peered at him, the man extended his hand – and warmly congratulated Vikan on bringing the Walters into the 20th century.

Those congratulations may have been sardonic, but they were hardly misplaced, for in his 18 years as director Vikan would play a central role in heightening the profile and revising the basically conservative reputation of the Walters. And in fact Going for Baroque was entirely typical of his novel attitude, as it paired Baroque pieces in the museum’s collection with provocative works by active artists such as Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman, and featured a companion show devoted to new work by MICA students. Tradition, it suddenly seemed, was yielding to something livelier, riskier, and more inclusive.

The story of that evolution is one of the central threads of Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director, an enjoyable new memoir that was published in September. Indeed, throughout the text Vikan’s commitment to a democratic view of art and his almost evangelical enjoyment of beauty in a variety of forms are recurring themes. But as anyone who has heard Vikan deliver his celebrated comparison between the cult of Elvis and medieval pilgrimage routes can tell you, he is also a natural scholar, given to analogy and theoretical bent.

The result, then, is a book that is several things at once. Most simply, it’s a selective account of his extended career as a prominent Byzantinist and museum professional. At the same time, it’s also a sustained meditation on an art and antiquities market in which collectors often compete for pieces whose provenances are hazy or even openly contested, and in which scruples often give way to competitiveness and greed.

For the most part, though, it’s a pleasant and fluid read. Vikan was granted a book deal when his manuscript won a pitch contest at a literary retreat, and it’s easy to see why: he’ s a natural storyteller, and while he occasionally lapses into cliché or repetitiveness, this is ultimately an account that holds both local and universal appeal. A revealing testimony to how the Walters has changed over the past forty years, it also offers an informative look at the sorts of decision-making processes that characterize museum work at a high level.

Gary Vikan at the Walters (photograph courtesy of the Walters Art Museum)

For the most part, the book is arranged chronologically. Vikan offers a highly condensed summary of his early years – Minnesota upbringing; Lutheran apostate; Carleton undergraduate – before slowing down and giving a more robust account of his experiences as a graduate student at Princeton, where he worked with the legendary Byzantinist Kurt Weitzmann, and curated his first museum show.

Within a few years, he had landed in Washington, at Dumbarton Oaks, a sort of empyrean for Byzantine studies. It was in many ways a perfect post for the emerging scholar; surrounded by senior colleagues and a rich collection, Vikan developed an active research agenda and curatorial practice. By 1983, however, relations between Vikan and the institute had begun to sour, and he eventually moved to Baltimore to become the chief curator at the Walters. In 1994, he assumed the directorship, a position he held until eventually retiring in 2013.

In revisiting his career, Vikan focuses largely upon several extended set pieces: accounts of exhibitions and negotiations that illustrate what he calls the “gray areas” of museum ethics. The 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus is a critical event here, as it prompted a wave of vandalism that soon resulted in a spate of exported frescoes and mosaics. Like many curators in the 1970s and 1980s, Vikan was thus confronted with a series of difficult decisions involving stolen or unethically marketed objects that played out in almost laughably stereotypical ways. Imagine intense, hushed negotiations in cafés and bars and the occasional wad of unmarked bills, and you’ve more or less got the picture.

Two case studies take center stage, and they involve paintings looted from a church near the village of Lysi, and mosaics plundered from a Byzantine site known as Kanakaria. In both cases, the stories are already relatively well-known. Indeed, the Kanakaria mosaics were the subject of a high-profile court case that ultimately culminated in their return to Cyprus: a process that was detailed by Dan Hofstadter, in his 1994 book Goldberg’s Angel: An Adventure in the Antiquities Trade.

Vikan is not breaking new ground, then, in emphasizing these episodes, but he was a central player in each, and here he gives his side of the story, and points to the complexity of the issues that can face ambitious collectors and curators. Do artifacts unearthed in Cyprus necessarily belong there in perpetuity, or might there be a case to be made for a more flexible and pragmatic policy, in which individuals and institutions in other countries contribute to the restoration of the works in exchange for temporary access? Through his examples, Vikan sketches such a vision, arguing that accessibility is also a valuable ideal and proposing a curatorial philosophy that is at once humane and realistic.

Detail of an Apostle from the 6th-century mosaics of Kanakaria

At times, however, Vikan suggests that his role in these discussions was driven at least as much by a love of celebrity as by larger ethical principles. “Did I want to be drawn into the story publicly?” he asks, in remembering the unfolding saga of the Lysi frescoes. “Of course… I love to be quoted in the papers.”

Apparently: at another point in the book he describes rifling through the morning paper in search of a review of a show that he had curated, and later he quotes a lengthy and admiring account, in The New Yorker, of his own performance as a witness in the Kanakaria trial. As a result, when the court rules that the mosaics are to be returned to Cyprus, it’s hardly surprising to find Vikan apparently as enthralled by his appearance on the front page of the Times as by his sense that justice had been done.

So Vikan likes the press. He also likes, we happen to learn, attractive females. Indeed, one of the more disappointing tendencies in this book is Vikan’s tendency to refer to women in terms of their attractiveness. A young Romanian named Alina is “very pretty;” a Turkish woman named Janet is “attractive and articulate;” a courier is “a very attractive blonde”; the female reporters he meets in Georgia flock together in an attractive, nameless huddle. Add Vikan’s tendency to refer admiringly to sports cars, and you’ve got a rusty cliché: his robust, heterosexual idiom sometimes seems almost as predictable as, say, Dan Brown’s.

Photograph by Thomas Baker

But only almost, for this book is redeemed by Vikan’s undeniable love of the art with which he works, and by the earnest industriousness apparent in his work at the Walters. One of the most ardent sections of the book involves an account of the 1988 exhibition Holy Image, Holy Space, which Vikan curated. Intent on avoiding a dry, academic tone, he devoted himself instead to an attempt to convey the sanctity associated with Byzantine icons: to communicate, that is, what Vikan likes to call the numinous, or the spiritually forceful.

To do this, he largely eschewed the rigorous or even obscure intensity of Kurt Weitzmann, and opted instead for the rapt populism of Henry Adams, whose wide-eyed accounts of medieval architecture had thrilled Vikan as a boy. What did this mean, in concrete terms? Vikan and his team opted for a largely theatrical staging, greeting viewers with a potent, five-foot-tall icon, placed at the end of a darkened entrance hall. “Each visitor,” Vikan recalls, “was forced to come straight at this great icon and stare back into Christ’s enormous eyes.”

With that show, Vikan articulated a curatorial strategy that effectively characterized much of his subsequent work at the Walters. To be sure, he remained committed to scholarly standards in his writing – but his exhibitions often involved a frank embrace of drama, with walls painted deep, rich colors and recorded music and videos supplementing the exhibited works of art. It would prove to be a winning approach, and it continues to affect, well after his departure, practice at the museum: the most recent medieval exhibition at the Walters also featured a multi-sensory dimension.

Two other tendencies set into motion by Vikan are also given, in his memoir, a deserved place. While the Walters owns an inarguably diverse collection of medieval material, one of Vikan’s major accomplishments involved his commitment to relatively overlooked traditions: to what he now calls “the art of the exotic corners of medieval Orthodoxy.” In assembling shows of work from the Caucasus, Russia, and Ethiopia, he did a great deal to expand the popular notion of the Middle Ages. And then, of course, there was the joint decision in 2006, made with the BMA, to eliminate admission fees. Aided by a bridge grant from the city, the move embodied Vikan’s commitment to open access and shared experience.

But while free access has familiarized much of Baltimore with the Walters, this book makes it clear that there’s always more to learn about the institution. For example, Vikan’s account of a stunning 1988 theft, in which 145 pieces suddenly went missing, is a highlight of the book: at once a compelling mystery and, as it turns out, a typically quirky Baltimore story. Vikan deftly gives us a sense of the confusion and embarrassment that coursed through the museum staff as the scale of the theft became apparent. But, wonderfully, he doesn’t stop there: rather, 25 years after the crime, he calls up the perpetrator, and interviews him over a glass of wine in Charles Village. It’s a deeply affecting scene: the former guardian of the keys and the thief, belatedly realizing that they share a powerful love of art.

Photograph courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

Of course, Vikan’s selective account does lead to certain lacunae. I would have liked more, for example, on the formation of the Chamber of Wonders (how exactly does a museum go about acquiring a stuffed alligator?), and a fuller account of the museum’s developing commitment to local and contemporary artists. Despite these uneven qualities, though, Vikan has produced an engaging, spirited narrative that helps to illuminate several aspects a career in museum work, and to explain the current profile of the Walters.

At one point in the book, Vikan revisits a moment in 1995, when he sat for a portrait by Raoul Middleman, who was working on a series of paintings of local art world eminences. It was a hot day, Vikan remembers, and there were important institutional decisions to be made, back at the Walters. Indeed, the Sun’s review of the resulting show of Middleman’s portraits mentioned that the painted Vikan appears “anxious to get back to his own work.” And yet it’s also clear from Vikan’s retelling of the episode that even as he felt the urge to return to work, he savored moments like the one’s in Middleman’s studio: the vicinity of art, the implication of celebrity, and a life lived in the public eye.

Think of his new memoir, then, as a pendant to that portrait. At once a self-portrait and a rumination on a career in the arts, it allows Vikan to continue to shape his public image while also extending, in a sense, his life’s work.

“When I retired,” Vikan told the Sun, “I didn’t retire with the aim of doing nothing.” And so you might say that this book confirms our sense of the energetic, ambitious figure painted by Middleman 30 years ago: a man who enjoys thinking about his visible profile – but who has clearly earned that profile, as well.

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