New space, quirky ideas could turn around the Contemporary Museum
Director Sue Spaid is organizing off-site exhibits and offbeat events
Sue Spaid, executive director of the Contemporary Museum, photographed in December, looking forward to the then-planned opening of a museum space at 505 N. Charles St. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / December 8, 2011)
"Future home of the Contemporary Museum. Opening January, 2012."
At least, that's the plan. In fact, the date for the grand reopening is something of a moving target.
At the moment, Sue Spaid, the Contemporary's executive director, doesn't have a signed lease. The museum's furniture and most of its documents are in storage. Spaid and nine part-time staff members are crammed into a 500-square-foot temporary headquarters on St. Paul Street. And the architect in charge of the renovation is insisting that there's no way he can finish a job so ambitious in a mere seven weeks.
"We're living in a total lurch," Spaid says, but she sounds more excited than dismayed.
After 10 years of staying put, the Contemporary is on the move.
Founded in 1989, the arts group known then only as "the Contemporary" has explored the art and culture of our time for the past 23 years. It has consistently mounted innovative, important exhibitions, from the nation's first museum show of cellphone art to "Bearing Witness" by the interracial husband-and-wife team of multimedia artists Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry.
The only problem with the exhibits was that relatively few people came to see them. Annual attendance in recent years rarely topped 6,000. Though direct, apple-to-apple comparisons can be misleading, the contemporary museums in such midsized cities as Cincinnati and Pittsburgh draw about 55,000 visitors annually.
"There's a crazy, wonderful, creative energy here in Baltimore that surpasses that of any city in which I've ever lived," says Sarah Doherty, who teaches interdisciplinary sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
"But when my students would talk about what was going on, the Contemporary would never come up. It had a much quieter presence than I would have expected. But in the past 12 months, the Contemporary seems to have become a more active part of the fabric of the local art world."
Partly that's because of the 50-year-old Spaid, who celebrates her one-year anniversary at the museum's helm this weekend.
In December and January alone, her staff devised and organized three exuberantly off-kilter events, including a grass-eating party for Saturday night in Greenmount West complete with a sod installation, chia pets provided by Baltimore Clayworks and musical entertainment from — what else? — a bluegrass band. (The green edibles were varieties of lawn plants, not the controlled substance.)
On Jan. 28, the Contemporary will throw an overnight "sleep concert" for families. Jammies and sleeping bags are encouraged; hot cocoa and live lullabies will be provided.
Later this month, Spaid hopes that Penn Station will temporarily double as an art gallery. She's negotiating to put installations by four local artists into unused retail space inside the railway terminal. The exhibit, called "Moving Right Along," would run for two months.
"I've always thought of myself as being in the memory business," Spaid says. "I try to figure out how to plan events that will create lasting memories for people."
If the Contemporary has yet to fully grip the public's imagination, the reasons why are anyone's guess. Spaid's two most recent predecessors are highly respected and have gone on to shepherd nationally known institutions.
Thom Collins, who led the Contemporary from 2003 to 2005, is now director of the Miami Art Museum. His successor, Irene Hofmann, left the Contemporary in the fall of 2010 to head the Phillips Collection in Santa Fe, N.M.
"I have to say, I was totally unprepared for how difficult it is in Baltimore to get people to see contemporary art," Spaid says.
"It's more difficult here than of any place I've ever lived. In Cincinnati, which is half Baltimore's size, 1,800 people attend openings at the Contemporary Arts Center. That's three times the number we'll get here."