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Contemporary Museum to suspend operations May 31

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The trustees of the Contemporary Museum announced Monday that they have voted unanimously to suspend operations May 31. That will be the last day for the executive director and four part-time staff members. Plans to secure a new home for the museum have been scrapped.

"We are solvent," said board member Barbara Portnoy Levine, who announced the board's decision Monday. "We are not in debt. The board just decided that the model was not serving us properly. We were not getting the commitment in terms of fundraising and participation we feel we should be getting."

The museum, which has presented a broad range of cutting-edge art projects for 23 years, started out in nomadic fashion, presenting exhibits at various locations before moving into a building on West Centre Street in 1999. That venue was owned by the Walters Art Museum, which needed the space back last year.

Since moving out, the Contemporary Museum, which has no permanent collection of artworks, set up a temporary office on St. Paul St. while scouting for a new home. Last fall, a storefront on Charles Street in Mount Vernon carried a banner advertising the "future home of the Contemporary Museum."

"We want to take a deep breath and reinvent ourselves," Levine said. "My hope is that the board will meet in the next couple of months and some kind of plan for the future will take shape."

That plan will not include the current executive director, Sue Spaid. The statement issued by the trustees thanked Spaid "for her dedication to and creative energy on behalf of the Museum over these last 18 months."

"We have not had any upheaval or sore point with Sue," Levine said. "That part of the model is simply not working."

Spaid, who was hired in 2010 and who spearheaded several provocative exhibits, declined to comment on the trustees' decision. But in an email, she said that she was "pleased to hear that the board feels that we should have received more funds and participation than we did."

Spaid also noted that 340 people attended the opening of the Contemporary Museum's "Baltimore Liste" exhibit, which ran May 9 to May 16 in a temporary space on East Baltimore Street. "And 70 came the next weekend," Spaid said.

That exhibit was organized with input from local contemporary artists and collectives. Such collaborative ventures have been a part of Spaid's approach since she joined the museum.

The Contemporary Museum has had an annual budget of about $400,000. Levine declined to specify how much money was on hand now but said that there were no creditors. The national economic decline was cited by the board as one factor influencing the decision.

"We have had a variety of interesting programming," Levine said, "but that hasn't resulted in more support. Our annual gala made only a portion of our goal. That was disappointing. And once we had to vacate [the Centre Street] space, it has been challenging."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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