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Grown-Up Conversations

By Gary Vikan
A chance encounter with a friend on the grand staircase of the Wiltshire Hotel during the 1977 College Art Association meetings brought me into conversation with his friend, then-director of the Smithsonian Residents' Associate Program. Even though I had lived in Washington, D.C., for several years, I had never heard of the Residents' Associate Program, and its director had never heard of me. Actually, her interest in me — a recent Princeton PhD and now research fellow at the Center for Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks — was solely as a conduit to my famous Princeton professor, Kurt Weitzmann, who she had hoped might give a lecture for the Residents' Program on the art of Byzantium. No such luck: Kurt was too old to make the trip from New Jersey and certainly could not be tempted by the $50 honorarium. On the other hand I could be tempted, and so I jumped at the chance to do the lecture myself.

Photo by John Dean I soon graduated from occasional lectures to full courses, and thus began my lifelong love affair with adult education. This was certainly no way to make a living since, in fact, preparation time for each lecture was initially so great that my take-home pay fell well below minimum wage. But I loved it, precisely because I have never thought of it as teaching in the way I have, over the years, taught undergraduates and graduate students. Instead, I think of it as an informed and directed conversation with like-minded grownups — people with day jobs and that sense of confidence that comes as one grows older, and wiser. These folks talk back, they question, they disagree, and they relate, and by that I mean they relate our ongoing conversation to their lives and our world, in a way that traditional college students rarely do.

Soon after I moved to Baltimore in the mid-'80s I was invited to participate in Johns Hopkins' Master of Liberal Arts Program, now part of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. I was then, and am still, immensely impressed with the MLA Program, not only for the people it attracts, both as students and as faculty, but for its focus and sophistication, which was a huge step up from my Washington experience. Now there were papers to grade, a crafted curriculum, and a degree to be earned: all the seriousness of the traditional college classroom but leavened by the pure fun of engaging with a diverse band of strong personalities. Over the years I have made many friends among my students, and probably have learned as much from them as they have from me. In my class I have taught lawyers, doctors, teachers, financial execs, nuns, and artists. And the latitude of offerings is positively exhilarating; where else could I have the privilege of exploring in class topics as oddly diverse as Byzantium Behind Closed Doors and Elvis Presley as a Secular Saint?

The impact on my life of that chance stairway encounter in 1977 went well beyond the fact that it sparked a lifetime of satisfying avocational teaching. Back then, adult education was attractive and meaningful for me because it provided therapeutic relief from the intense, often obscure scholarship that was the stuff of my job at Dumbarton Oaks, a Harvard research center known for its Byzantine and pre-Columbian art. It was as if the professional minutiae of my daytime hours found their meaning in the expansive conversations of my evening hours. And out of this developed my lifelong fascination with subjects — like Elvis and the Shroud of Turin — that at once occupy enormous popular-culture status in our world and at the same time are susceptible to thought-provoking classroom exploration using the scholarly methods that I had learned in the world of Byzantium.

And on quite another plane, that chance encounter those many years ago in Los Angeles started me on the path that led eventually to the director's chair here at the Walters Art Museum. For I realized through my continued exposure to adult education and life-long learners that I could only find personal and professional fulfillment if what I learned in my graduate seminars at Princeton and through my Dumbarton Oaks research would somehow, eventually, have real meaning for real people. So now, through our great Walters collections and superb staff, I struggle to give contemporary meaning to the art of the past, through another variant of that informed, directed conversation that I learned years ago in the classroom.

Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum, is a member of the MLA's advisory board and will be teaching Art of the Middle Ages this spring. The MLA program is celebrating its 40th anniversary at Johns Hopkins.

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