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Former Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan talks black market art, Baltimore museums in new memoir

Hollywood might not have been too far off the mark with the “Indiana Jones” films; just take Gary Vikan as living proof. During his nearly 20 years as the director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore City, Vikan helped grow the extensive collection of historic art and relics to over 35,000 pieces, but not without witnessing backdoor trades, blatant thievery and deceptively accurate forgeries.

Vikan first joined the Baltimore museum scene in 1985 after leaving his senior associate for Byzantine Art position at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C. Through his work since then — whether it be bringing a 500-year-old painting to the Walters or mentoring young artists to help use their skills and creativity as a vessel for social justice — he has seen and aided the expansion of arts in Maryland.

“Baltimore is so needing of [young artists],” Vikan said. “And I think we are so lucky there are so many people who are willing to invest their time, their energy and really their career into something that is so difficult and so challenging.”

This was not always the case, in his eyes. This spirit of advocacy through the arts and museums has been growing “untethered and unrestrained” since he arrived in the city, a change he welcomes with open arms. “What city is more needing of these kinds of voices and this kind of energy than Baltimore?”

With that said, the work of art historians and museum curators is not always as inspirational. In his new memoir, “Sacred and Stolen: Confession of a Museum Director,” published by SelectBooks, Vikan highlights the “behind the scenes” action fueled by shady dealers, persuadable government officials and the museums themselves. He compares the book to both “the [television] show ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ and a Garrison Keillor story.”

Vikan notes the blunt source for the book’s content, saying, “The stories that I tell are things that stuck with me and the things that stuck with me are not the easy parts, or the pretty parts, but the things that were nasty.”

Despite the considerable amount of chaos hidden behind the veil of a finished gallery exhibit, he still feels a need to write about it. “[Art museums] are, after all, public institutions,” Vikan said. “And [museums] are charged to serve the public. I think the public deserves a better idea of what goes on behind the scenes.”

While the subject of the book is specialized at times, Vikan made sure to have the book be relatable to as wide of an audience as he could. He wanted his readers to “not need any tools” to follow the story and learn about the past, while still conveying the emotion behind the art and it’s history.

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