The best thing about the Walters Art Museum, according to Gary Vikan, is a Saturday afternoon.
“You just stand in that lobby and watch parents and children and young couples, African Americans, Hispanics — this is what a museum should be,” said the Mount Vernon museum’s director.
Vikan, 65, has served in his position for 18 years and has been with the museum for 27. He will step down at the end of June 2013, or once a successor is found, the museum announced Wednesday.
His greatest achievement as director was “going free,” Vikan said.
In October 2006, the museum eliminated its admission fee, boosting attendance by about 45 percent and increasing the diversity of its visitors by nearly threefold. In fiscal 2006, the museum had 130,000 visitors. In fiscal 2011, it had 188,000, said Amy Mannarino, spokeswoman for the Walters.
“By going free, we acknowledge that the public owns the collection and should have access to the collection,” Vikan said.
Christine Anagnos, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which has 199 member organizations, including the Walters, praised Vikan’s commitment to the community through the Walters’ educational and outreach programs, and free admission.
“I’m sad to see him step down. I think he’s done such remarkable things for that institution and Baltimore,” she said. “They’ve really done a remarkable job embracing Baltimore and embracing the community in which they exist, while still maintaining such high regard from the museum community internationally.”
“Going free” translates to another credit of Vikan’s tenure: the expansion of the museum’s online presence.
The Walters’ website has 1.8 million annual visitors and almost 90,000 Twitter followers. The website has more than 10,000 images that the public can download for free.
This summer, the museum will push its community engagement to the next level through an exhibition called “Public Property,” a crowd-sourced collection being curated by the public on the museum’s website.
“Why? Because they own it. Why shouldn’t they get to pick what they look at?” Vikan said.
While the majority of his job is to support his staff, Vikan also makes time for other things — like private tours.
“Gary Vikan embodied the spirit of the Walters Art Museum,” said Jan Houbolt, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Leadership program. A night at the Walters is an annual part of the program’s social and cultural events.
“He led many Leadership groups through it, touring them, giving them a sense of the great treasures of Baltimore. He will be missed by all for the loss of his knowledge, wisdom and enthusiasm.”
Vikan, who was born in Minnesota, spent 10 years as a senior associate for Byzantine Art Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington before coming to the Walters as a curator.
He said he wanted to retire three years ago, in the fall of 2008, “but then the recession was barreling down. I couldn’t leave at that point.”
Under his guidance the museum carried on, balancing its budget every year, and “came out of the abyss” in June of this year, he said.
The museum has a fiscal 2011 budget of $13.6 million, and its endowment stands at $85.4 million, Mannarino said.
Vikan’s other achievements include leading the museum through a name change, from The Walters Art Gallery to the Walters Art Museum, overseeing two major building renovations, raising $65 million in capital and endowment funds, creating a “Touring Exhibition Program,” and launching the Center for the Arts of the Ancient Americas.
Vikan is “irreplaceable” said Theresa Colvin, executive director of the Maryland State Arts Council, a state agency that works to promote and increase funding for the arts in Maryland.
“He’s always had one foot on the path. He’s firmly rooted in the present but he’s always reaching toward the future as well,” said Colvin, who has known Vikan since 1991.
Vikan also added 24 endowed positions, something he is very proud of, he said.
“When the recession comes, these positions cannot be terminated. …It’s a way of stabilizing through a downturn and guaranteeing that you have the quality people that respond to the collection,” he said.
Looking to the future, Vikan has two books he wants to publish. One, titled, “From the Holy Land to Grace Land,” is “about everything from the Holy Sepulchre to Elvis Presley and all the stops in between” he said, and is being looked at by the University of California Press.
The other, “Postcards from the Walters,” is a selection of about 40 percent of radio segments by the same name that Vikan did for WYPR. He is also looking to write a book about the Shroud of Turin.
When it comes to his successor, Vikan said he plans to give the new person plenty of space.
“You need freedom, you need fresh air,” he said.