Contemporary opens first exhibit after nearly three-year hiatus

The Contemporary hopscotches around the city and (hopefully) into our hearts

Nearly three years after the Contemporary arts organization abruptly shut its doors in mid-exhibition and eliminated the jobs of its five-member staff, a big neon "C" on the outside of the KAGRO building in Station North will glow cherry pink Saturday night.

Visitors will sip champagne, hobnob with friends, take in the kaleidoscope of moving images orchestrated by California artist Victoria Fu, and celebrate the emergence in a leaner, nimbler and nomadic form of one of Baltimore's most cherished arts institutions.

Though the Contemporary recently wrapped up a yearlong lecture series that brought nationally known artists to Baltimore, "Bubble Over Green" is the first show that the organization has put on since it announced in 2013 that it would relaunch. For the art-loving public, the show — and that neon "C" created for this occasion — are the most visible symbols that the presenting group formerly known as the Contemporary Museum is back.

Before it suspended operations on May 31, 2012, amid financial concerns exacerbated by years of lackluster attendance, the Contemporary had been presenting provocative works by emerging artists from across America and around the world for 23 years. Some were so cutting-edge they brought Baltimore national attention. So when local arts boosters learned that the organization would return in a revamped format, it signaled something positive about the vitality of the city's arts scene as a whole.

Baltimore Museum of Art director Doreen Bolger's heart lifted when she attended a preview of the show earlier this week. A stream of colorful images flooded the gallery, lit up the floor-to-ceiling glass windows and spilled onto the sidewalk outside.

"The Contemporary has always been fundamental in sustaining artists and innovation in Baltimore," she said. "None of us can stand alone. We're all connected. I think they have a financial model now as well as the leadership that will enable them to continue making a unique and important contribution to the local community."

The "new" Contemporary looks a lot more like the organization created in 1989 by longtime Maryland Institute College of Art faculty member George Ciscle — albeit with a $400,000 annual budget — and a lot less like the organization that from 1999 to 2011 was housed on West Centre Street in a building owned by the Walters Art Museum.

"We're excited to be returning to our roots as a nomadic institution, which is how we were founded," said Terry Squyres, the architect who serves as president of the Contemporary's board of trustees.

In 1993, the young arts organization shook up the art world nationally with the show "Mining the Museum," in which artist Fred Wilson took up residence at the Maryland Historical Society and reinterpreted its exhibits in the context of slavery.

Similarly, the reinvented Contemporary expects to commission two or three shows each year that will hopscotch around the city and engage informally with passers-by, instead of being staged in just one building that viewers have to decide in advance to visit.

The Contemporary's staff wanted the inaugural show to take place in Station North. They received permission to mount Fu's show in the KAGRO building for free in exchange for cleaning up the former Korean-American Grocers Association site. Workers ripped out old carpeting, repaired broken windows and got the heating restored.

This summer, the organization will move into office space somewhere in the Bromo Arts & Entertainment District. Members are hard at work planning their second show, which is expected to open in the fall on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus and extend into surrounding neighborhoods.

They've also recently secured a $50,000 grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation that they will repackage into individual awards of $1,000 to $6,000 and distribute to local arts collectives that don't qualify for traditional funding.

The Contemporary's director, Deana Haggag, described the outreach efforts as "our olive branch to the local arts community" and continued, "We've been trying to make amends and reparations in whatever way we can."

There's no question that the organization's decision to suspend operations in 2012, after just 10 days' notice, resulted in bad publicity and strained relations with some members of the local arts community. Five people, including former executive director Sue Spaid, lost their jobs. In addition, the show that was running at the time, "Baltimore Liste," featured local artists instead of national figures, so it meant breaking commitments to neighbors, colleagues and friends.

But two years' worth of goodwill efforts seem to be bearing fruit.

Spaid is living and working in Belgium now but writes in an email that she hopes that the art-loving public will turn out for the Contemporary's shows, lectures and other events.

"I am totally supportive of the Contemporary, its staff and its board and hope that they continue to persevere," Spaid writes.

Sculptor and installation artist Chris Lavoie's work was on exhibit in 2012 when the organization closed. His experience overall was positive, though he said the lack of explanation of the organization's sudden closing was confusing and, at the time, a little upsetting.

"The whole unknown aspect of it was what was so mystifying," he said.

"We didn't know if the organization was shutting down indefinitely. Not much was communicated about what was going on. But I'm grateful to them for putting the show together and for including my work, and I'm glad that at least part of it happened."

The answer to Lavoie's underlying question about what went wrong with the Contemporary is complicated. Despite public perception, the organization was solvent. Squyres said. There was enough money to pay their bills.

"Economics are always a factor," she said, "but they weren't the primary reason we suspended operations."

Instead, she said, several circumstances combined to create a snowball effect. Trustees had been concerned for some time that annual audience numbers rarely exceeded 6,000, or roughly 60 percent of what the board thought that number should be. Then in 2011, the Contemporary lost its longtime home on Centre Street when its lease expired and the Walters decided it needed its building back.

New space was found a few blocks away, and an architect drew up plans to renovate it. But the building project was expected to take up to five years to complete, and would have required a hefty financial investment — with no guarantee that the Contemporary's short-term lease would be extended.

After salaries, and the cost of fixing up temporary headquarters, Squyres said there would have been relatively little money in the $400,000 budget left over to actually showcase art.

"The board no longer was sure that we were serving our original mission," she said. "We had an obligation to our investors and donors, and we did not want to burn through the assets we had. We decided we had to start the in-depth process of re-evaluation, and that wasn't something we could do overnight."

The decision to cease operating was painful, but Squyres thinks the Contemporary that has emerged is better positioned to serve its public. The organization once again has a $400,000 budget made up entirely of private donations. For now, all events are free.

The lecture series drew more than 3,500 visitors — far more than she and Haggag had anticipated. Staff members installing Fu's pieces in the KAGRO building already have had to gently turn away passers-by eager to come inside and look at the art.

"The Contemporary already is starting to tap into the community, to forge new connections and to bring new people into the mix," said Rob Mintz, the Walters' chief curator.

"For 25 years, they've been critical to the artistic fabric of Baltimore. They're kind of like fertilizer for the arts."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

The opening reception for "Bubble Over Green" will be held from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday at 101 W. North Ave. The exhibit runs at that location through April 3. Viewing hours are 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Free. For details, call 410-756-0397 or go to contemporary.org.

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