Gudmund Vigtel | High Museum chief, 87

Posted: October 30, 2012

Gudmund Vigtel, 87, pivotal director of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, died Oct. 20 of cancer at his Atlanta home. He oversaw the museum's transformation from a modest regional institution housed in a simple brick building into one of the nation's most successful art museums, and shepherded its move to an architectural statement of a building designed by Richard Meier. Mr. Vigtel remained at the High for 28 years.

Mr. Vigtel was named to the top post in 1963, a year after more than 100 Atlanta art patrons and their family members died in a plane crash. "Vig came to a demoralized city," said Michael E. Shapiro, the museum's current director, "and he leveraged what were modest resources in 1963 to create a museum that has put Atlanta on the world cultural map."

Mr. Vigtel tripled the size of the High's permanent collection and developed an innovative art-appreciation program for schoolchildren. He started one of the country's first collections of African American art and another of American decorative arts, now considered one of the best in the country. He acquired hundreds of works by renowned 19th- and 20th-century American and European artists and left the museum with a $15 million endowment, which has since grown.

In the mid-1970s, he began fundraising for a new building and scouting for an architect to design it. He persuaded civic leaders to hire a New York architect who, though respected, had not yet achieved the fame that would come to him.

"Richard Meier was little-known," Shapiro said, "and certainly had never built a museum before."

The finished building is a 135,000-square-foot postmodern, curvilinear structure of many sides, like an M.C. Escher drawing in three dimensions, sheathed in white porcelain-coated steel. It opened in 1983, near the Peachtree Street site of the museum's former home, a house the High family donated. - AP

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