Crooked dealers. Forgeries. Thefts. Looted antiquities. Readers will find it all in Gary Vikan’s highly readable and entertaining new memoir, Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director. The distinguished medieval scholar and former director of the Walters Art Museum recently answered questions for Between the Covers in advance of his book talk at the Hereford Branch on December 4 at 2 p.m.
Between the Covers: Your new memoir, Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director, provides an insightful, often humorous look behind the scenes of the art world. What prompted you to share these stories with the public?
Gary Vikan: Over the years I became increasingly interested, as I gave tours of the Walters, in telling the stories behind the works of art — stories that are distinct from their art-historical narrative. Most works have a story, many are very interesting — and some straight-out scandalous.
BTC: Shady dealings, sketchy characters, stolen art — you cover it all. Did you worry you were saying too much?
GV: Not at all. Maybe not enough. My lectures on the book can go into that other territory.
BTC: Museums have to connect with people. How has the art experience for the public changed since you got into the business?
GV: I initially thought my job was to educate my audience. Now I think my job is to listen to my audience, and to meet them where they are. Ideally, I can create for them a setting in which works of art of the past can do their magic.
BTC: From 1994 to 2013, you were the director of the Walters Art Museum. What accomplishments are you most proud?
GV: We went free in 2006. That is what museums should be: FREE.
BTC: Of all the exhibitions you’ve curated during your career, do you have a favorite?
GV: Yes, Holy Image, Holy Space: Icons and Frescoes from Greece in 1988. It was the first major icon show in the U.S., and it was the first time I was able to empower the works fully in my installation.. People kissed the Plexiglas of the cases containing the icons.
BTC: You speak about the “Wild West” days of collecting when not a lot of questions were asked about the provenance of pieces. Where are we today with the trail of looted antiquities and threat to the world’s cultural heritage?
GV: We’re in what I call the “Post-Loot” age. I can tell that by what is NOT coming out of Syria and Iraq. Like our tobacco culture, our loot culture has changed profoundly over the last 30 years.
BTC: What do you see as the next challenges for museums?
GV: Being meaningful for audiences, and playing a meaningful role in addressing social justice and social ills. To be a player in healing.
BTC: You have a knack for telling an engaging story. Are there any plans to write a fictional whodunit set in the art world?
GV: Nope, because my reality is stranger than fiction. My next book is titled: The Shroud: Case Closed. And guess what, I prove the Shroud of Turin is a FAKE!