Robert P. Bergman, Director Cleveland Museum of Art, 1945–1999


Robert P. Bergman, the fifth director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, a nationally known medieval art scholar and a national leader in his field, died May 6, 1999, from a rare blood disorder associated with lymphoma. He was 53.

His six, too-brief years at the helm of the museum were a period of great “renewal, innovation, creativity and action,” as a Museum News tribute put it. Where to begin? Bergman returned the institution to solid financial health and broadened the composition of the board of trustees. He renovated or reinstalled 30 of the museum’s 70 galleries—improvements accomplished within the confines of the annual budget, with the exception of a stunning $1.5 million makeover of the much-beloved Armor Court. He secured major acquisitions in all areas of the permanent collection (a 13th-century Pisan altar cross; a 5,000-year-old Anatolian figure, the earliest sculpture in the collection; and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn X 100 are but a few examples). And he insisted that exhibitions regularly draw upon and illuminate the excellence of the museum’s holdings, an emphasis made without sacrificing annual attendance, which grew into the mid-600,000s under his leadership.

Shortly before Bergman’s death, the museum completed a comprehensive facilities plan that recommended the first major expansion since the Marcel Breuer wing was built in 1970. The hallmarks of the plan are the reorientation of the museum’s main entrance to East Boulevard and the reinstallation of the entire collection on one floor. Both moves are aimed (as were previous reinstallations) at making the museum-going experience less intimidating and more meaningful for Clevelanders. In recommitting the institution to its 1913 visitor-centered mission statement while upholding its scholarly standards, Bergman made perhaps his greatest contribution.

A New Jersey native who preferred playing jazz in his own Big Band to high school studies, Bergman discovered a love of art history that blossomed in graduate school at Princeton. Whether it was leading, in fanciful costume and headdress, the annual Parade the Circle procession or convincing Cleveland Indians coach Mike Hargrove to become the museum’s spokesperson, he spoke from firsthand experience in giving “compelling voice to the simple idea that art matters to everyone,” as the program at his memorial service noted. “He had faith that everyday people could and would appreciate great art if museums worked to provide the proper setting.”

Cleveland Arts Prize
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