From Art Gallery to Art Museum
Following Henry Walters' death in 1931, the mayor of Baltimore appointed a board of trustees who, in turn, consulted with a distinguished committee of museum personnel and scholars regarding the proper management of a public museum. Within a year, a research staff of five curators, a conservator, and a chemist had been appointed. The art gallery very briefly reopened in the spring of 1934 to allow visitors to view for the last time the outdated, cluttered installations of the Henry Walters era. It was then closed to provide the staff with an opportunity to transform the Walters Art Gallery completely into a modern, public institution.
Over the summer, the curators catalogued the collections, prepared a handbook, and began to organize a number of pioneering exhibitions. Inevitably their efforts were constrained by the lack of adequate space to display the collections. Nevertheless, the art gallery continued to augment its holdings through purchases and gifts, albeit at a modest pace. When Sarah Walters auctioned many of the works from her New York residence in 1941, the Walters Art Gallery trustees voted to bid for 11 of them, including a large, late antique vase carved out of a single piece of agate which had been taken as plunder from Constantinople by French crusaders in 1204. Subsequently it had passed through a number of distinguished collections, most notably that of the artist and diplomat Peter-Paul Rubens (1577 - 1640).
The Walters Art Gallery's initial purchase policy was to enhance those aspects of the collection that were inadequately represented rather than to emphasize existing strengths. To augment its Flemish holdings, for example, the art gallery purchased in 1948 a 17th-century view of the Infanta Isabella of Spain and her husband, the Archduke Albert, visiting a collector's cabinet of natural curiosities and artistic treasures. The authorship of this work, which once belonged to Walters' rival collector and business associate, J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), has been debated, but is now identified as Frans Francken II and workshop, with Jan Brueghel II.
Attempts to win financial support for a major building expansion failed in 1958 and the 1960s. Only in 1966 did Baltimore City's passage of a bond issue, together with a grant from the State of Maryland and private contributions, enable the museum to realize plans for more exhibition space. Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott of Boston, and Meyer, Ayres and Saint of Baltimore were chosen to design a new wing, located on the corner of Centre and Cathedral Streets. Their plans called for an exterior with expansive surfaces of raw concrete which would complement the masonry walls of the original building, and for an interior with a series of intimate galleries in which to view the many small objects in the collection. The extension, which opened in 1974, resulted in greater display space and permitted an expansion of programs, but also stimulated the growth of the collections.
In 1984, Mr. and Mrs. Willard Hackerman presented to the City of Baltimore a house on Mount Vernon Place adjacent to the Walters' original art gallery. When built between 1848 and 1850 for Dr. John Hanson Thomas, this residence was described as "one of the most elegant and princely specimens of architectural taste and mechanical skill." Still ranked among the most handsome late classical structures in the city, the house was entrusted by the City to the Walters Art Gallery to be used to exhibit Asian art.
The Centre Street Building Renovation
In the early 1990s, it became apparent that troubles with the 1974 addition's air handling systems necessitated upgrades. Director Gary Vikan decided to take that opportunity to rethink the entire building-from walls and windows, to security and fire suppression systems, to the collections themselves. The museum then embarked on a period of planning, eventually launching and successfully meeting a capital campaign goal of nearly $37 million.
In 1998, the Centre Street building closed to the public and renovation began, with almost every aspect of the Walters' collections, facilities, and public outreach being reevaluated, including substantial new research into the collections and important conservation projects in the museum's own laboratories. Three years later, the result was 39 newly configured and refurbished galleries, a new four-story glass entryway opening dramatically onto the street, and an array of expanded public spaces. The new galleries were designed by Quenroe Associates, Inc. of Boulder, Colorado, with Chuck Mack serving as principal designer. Michael McKinnell of Kallman McKinnell & Wood Architects, Inc. of Boston was architect.
As part of the new look, the Walters also introduced its new name, changing from the Walters Art Gallery to the Walters Art Museum. When Henry Walters first bequeathed his collection to the City of Baltimore, the word "gallery" described a series of large public rooms where art was displayed which is what the institution was. However today, the term "gallery" more often refers to a place that sells art, or that has a small, particularly focused collection. The Walters realized that the word "museum" was more suited to a large, public institution where art of various periods can be experienced. That is, the word "museum" better expresses the mission for which the Walters was founded.