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Gudmund Vigtel, 87; transformed Atlanta’s High Museum of Art

Mr. Vigtel led the museum’s move to an architectural statement of a building designed by Richard Meier.

Courtesy of the High Museum of Art

Mr. Vigtel led the museum’s move to an architectural statement of a building designed by Richard Meier.

NEW YORK — When Gudmund Vigtel was named director of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in 1963, civic leaders asked him to do more than create a better museum to reflect the city’s rising cultural ambitions. They wanted a living monument to the more than 100 Atlanta art patrons and their family members who had died the year before in a plane crash.

The group, members of the Atlanta Arts Association, had been on a museum-sponsored tour of Europe when, on June 3, 1962, a chartered Air France jetliner crashed on takeoff from Orly Airport in Paris.

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In the aftermath, civic leaders mounted an uncommonly emotional fund-raising campaign to remake the museum. Hiring Mr. Vigtel, who at the time was an assistant director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, was considered the keystone of the effort.

Mr. Vigtel, who died Oct. 20 at 87, remained at the High for 28 years, overseeing its transformation from a modest regional institution housed in a simple brick building into one of the nation’s most successful art museums, and shepherding its move to an architectural statement of a building designed by Richard Meier.

‘‘Vig came to a demoralized city,’’ said Michael E. Shapiro, the museum’s 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 died of cancer at his home in Atlanta, a museum spokesman said.

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, 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 fund-raising 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.

Gudmund Vigtel was born in 1925, in Jerusalem to Lutheran missionaries. His father, who was from Norway, moved the family to Vienna in 1929 and then to Oslo in 1936. But after the Nazi occupation of Norway, Mr. Vigtel moved to Sweden in 1942 to avoid conscription in the Nazi-controlled armed forces. He studied art under Swedish artist Isaac Grunewald, a student of Matisse.

Through the International Rotary Club, he received a scholarship to the Atlanta College of Art, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art. He worked at the Corcoran from 1954 until his appointment in Atlanta.

He leaves his wife, Carolyn Smith Vigtel; two daughters; and four grandchildren.

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