Gudmund Vigtel, 87: The ‘defining’ director of the High Museum of Art

In 1963, when Gudmund Vigtel was offered the directorship of the High Museum of Art, he saw something that resembled a blank canvas.

At the time, Vigtel was the assistant director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which had opened its doors in 1874, had more than 700 works of art before 1900, and had works by Renoir and Monet in its permanent collection in the 1930s.

The High, founded in 1905, was located in a small glass-and-brick building, had a staff of four, fewer than 3,000 objects in its collection, no endowment, and a $60,000 budget, including salaries.

“I wanted to go somewhere that I could build,” Vigtel told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1991, the year he retired from the High. “For all of its shortcomings, I thought it was a good prospect. The [Memorial, now Woodruff] Arts Center was in the early planning stages. I saw lots of possibilities. I wasn’t disappointed.”

After a brief period of declining health, brought on by complications of cancer, Vigtel died Saturday at his Atlanta home. He was 87. A private burial was held Tuesday in North Carolina. A public memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Monday at the Cathedral of St. Philip, followed by a reception at the High. Macon Funeral Home, Franklin, N.C., was in charge of arrangements.

During Vigtel’s 28 years as director, he tripled the size of the High’s permanent collection, established more than $15 million in endowment and trust funds, increased the operating budget to $9 million, and grew the staff to 150. His “crowning achievement,” said High director Michael E. Shapiro, was the construction and opening of the Richard Meier-designed building in 1983, now named the Stent Family Wing.

“There are many people who love the High Museum, fortunately, but there are very few people who have had the responsibility of being its director,” Shapiro said. “Vig’s tenure was so substantial and so transformative, that his was really the defining directorship in the history of the High Museum.”

Born in Jerusalem, Vigtel studied art in Sweden under Isaac Grunewald, a student of Matisse, in the mid-’40s. In 1948, Vigtel, who had been living in Norway, left Europe and traveled to Atlanta to attend the Atlanta College of Art, thanks to a scholarship offered by the Atlanta Rotary Club. Shortly thereafter he was offered a full scholarship to the University of Georgia’s school of art, where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees.

It was in May 1963 that he returned to Atlanta and became director of the High, a position he enjoyed with every fiber of his being, friends and co-workers said.

“He clearly relished growing the museum and the collection,” said Frances R. Francis, registrar at the High. “And it was fun to work with him because he was right there with the opening of every crate, and you just felt like you were a part of something important.”

When he retired, Vigtel was named director emeritus and served as a non-voting member of the museum’s board of directors. He continued to help the High build its collection and “provided an ongoing, informal historical background for many staff members,” Shapiro said.

“We shared a very deep bond, and I always felt like I stood on his shoulders,” Shapiro said. “We were more than colleagues, more than friends. We were brothers, and we referred to each other that way. I have one sister, and Vig is my only brother.”

Survivors include his wife of 48 years, Carolyn Smith Vigtel of Atlanta; daughters, Elisabeth Wallentin of Oslo, Norway, and Catherine Vigtel of Atlanta; and four grandchildren.

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