The High Museum of Art was a small-town institution with an unmemorable collection and no endowment when Gudmund Vigtel arrived to lead it in 1963. By the time he retired in 1991, it was housed in a world-renowned building and its collection, which had tripled in size, boasted prominent holdings in decorative arts, folk art and American painting.
The museum’s trajectory might seem to parallel Atlanta’s growth, but in a city that has always valued business and sports more than culture, growing the museum was hardly a matter of coattails. It took the dogged museum director, who died Saturday at the age of 87, to nudge the institution forward with velvet-gloved resolve.
“Most people credit the Orly crash, which killed more than 100 Atlanta art patrons in 1962, for the development of the museum,” said Glenn Harper, now editor of Sculpture magazine, in 1991. “But Vig was more responsible than anybody for doing the actual work in taking it to a level of international significance.”
Vig, as most everyone called him, first came to Atlanta as an art student in 1948. What a backwater it must have seemed to a young man born in Jerusalem, who had lived in Vienna and Oslo and had skied to Sweden to flee the Nazi occupation. (And no wonder he was incredulous when staffers couldn’t make it to work on snow days.)
After a year at the High Museum School of Art (forerunner of the now-defunct Atlanta College of Art), Vigtel earned a BFA and an MFA at the University of Georgia. Not long after taking a job as an installation assistant at the Corcoran Museum in Washington, he decided that, as he said, “the world didn’t need another bad painter.”
After rising in the Corcoran ranks to become assistant director, he was ready to run his own place.
“I wanted to go somewhere that I could build,” he recalled shortly before his retirement. “For all of its shortcomings, I thought it was a good prospect. The Memorial Arts Building, now Woodruff Arts Center, was in the early planning stages. I saw lots of possibilities.”
The son of Lutheran missionaries made the High Museum his calling. “Vig was absolutely devoted to the museum,” says Peter Morrin, former High curator and retired director of Louisville’s Speed Art Museum. “He always had the best interest of the museum in mind.”
Possessed of an impish wit, the handsome museum director exuded an aura of energy. He needed it: with a staff so small it could fit (he joked) into a Volkswagen Beetle, Vig worked 70-hour weeks as curator, installer, docent-trainer and lecturer as well as director.
The museum benefited from the close relationships he made with the art history faculty at Emory University, particularly Clark Poling and the late John Howett, who served as sounding boards for acquisitions and guest curators.
“Vig was always open to conceptually interesting projects,” says Poling. During the 1970s, he curated “Bauhaus Color” and “Contemporary Art in Southern California,” which included Chris Burden, Ed Ruscha and Bruce Nauman.
When the High finally hired its first curators in 1979, Vig was similarly open with them. And, by being so, he brought in acquisitions that remain key holdings of the museum.
“Black Folk Art in America,” the seminal exhibition that brought the genre into the mainstream consciousness, was a year away when Morrin, curator of modern and contemporary art, went into Vig’s office after a trip to Memphis.
“I said we ought to buy work by this self-taught artist Bill Traylor, and he went to bat for it, raised the money, though he had no rational reason to do so,” Morrin says.
Just as boldly, he trusted decorative arts curator Donald Peirce, who worked with patron Virginia Carroll Crawford to build a now-renowned collection of 19th- and early-20th-century American decorative art, then gathering dust in antique shops.
Vig had no illusions about that collection. He would say that it had more voids than solids. But he shaped it as he could, sometimes in the direction of his own interests — 19th-century American painting, for instance — and sometimes, as in his 1979 decision to go into photography, in response to the will of the community.
Susan Krane, executive director of the San Jose Museum of Art, who was modern and contemporary art curator at the High from 1987 to 1995, remembers Vig as one who loved artists and was integrally involved with the local scene.
“There were lots of dinners at Genevieve’s [Arnold], and he was always there,” she says. “Vig felt he had been in Atlanta so long he was part of the grass roots.”
Annette Cone-Skelton credits Vig with launching her artistic career and mentoring her as a museum director. A blunt critic during studio visits, he began buying her work and putting it into shows when she was still a student, and he remained a source of support and encouragement when she launched the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia as founding director. “The day it opened, he was first on my doorstep offering to help,” she says.
Vig contributed to MOCA GA’s catalog for “The Artists of Heath Gallery” in 2002 and curated “Lamar Dodd” in 2008.
I have my own story. When The Atlanta Constitution was looking to hire an art critic in 1981, Vig recommended me — and he had the forbearance to keep that a secret, even when he was unhappy about a negative review, until after he had retired.
His tenure wasn’t all roses. In addition to struggling with budget constraints, he was taken to task by impatient art aficionados, and everyone, it seems, excoriated him when the High didn’t take the wildly popular “King Tut” traveling exhibition in 1976. The museum, he insisted, was too small to accommodate it.
That was the nadir of his career. But the Woodruff Foundation stepped in with a $7.5 million challenge grant to construct a free-standing museum, and “Let’s build a museum big enough for Atlanta” became a rallying cry.
For the High, whose building and identity had been swallowed up by the Memorial Arts structure, inaugurating the Richard Meier building was like a bar mitzvah and debutante party in one. Meier, who had been an up-and-coming architect, seized the world architectural stage with the building, and the High, praised for its forward thinking, basked in the reflected light.
Buttons bursting with pride in the architecture and new respect, Vig, who always walked on the tips of his toes, almost bounced when he walked into the museum each day, Morrin recalls.
He found time to do his own curating, including a retrospective for glass sculptor Harvey Littleton in 1985 and the fine “Art in Berlin: 1815-1989,” which fortuitously opened as the Berlin Wall came down.
Even in retirement, Vig continued to serve the museum. He played the diplomat in bringing “After the Scream: The Late Paintings of Edvard Munch” in 2002 and also contributed to its catalog.
Says High Director Michael Shapiro, “Vig’s long-term relationship with Charles West was certainly responsible for the recent major gift of 19th-century American paintings and sculpture from the West Foundation in his honor.”
Shapiro sums up his comrade’s legacy this way: “He led the High from a period of austere and challenging circumstances in the year after the Orly tragedy through the triumphant opening of the Richard Meier-designed building in October of 1983. In so doing, he gave Atlanta its single most architecturally distinguished building and put Atlanta and the High on the world cultural map for the first time.
“He nurtured one of America’s best decorative arts collections, established the museum’s photography and African collections, and bought wisely and well in both American and European 19th- and 20th-century art.
“I have always felt honored to stand on Vig’s shoulders.”
Vigtel is survived by his wife Carolyn and daughter Catherine.
There will be a memorial service at 2 p.m. Monday, October 29, at the Cathedral of St. Philip and a reception afterward at the High Museum. Donations may be made in Vig’s memory to Hospice Atlanta or to the museum’s Gudmund Vigtel Memorial Fund at Gudmund Vigtel Memorial Fund, c/o Office of the Director, High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree Street N.E., Atlanta, GA 30309.