In 1992, the young organization shook up the art world nationally when it co-sponsored "Mining the Museum" — artist Fred Wilson took up residence at the Maryland Historical Society and reinterpreted its exhibits in the light of slavery.
Perhaps, some speculate, problems began in 1999 when the organization moved into its first permanent home next to the Walters Art Museum. Once the Contemporary no longer was leading a nomadic existence, it wasn't under as strong a compulsion to actively engage the outside world.
Perhaps the decision to add "museum" to the organization's name confused the public. The term implies a well-funded permanent collection, while the Contemporary owns no artifacts and has an annual budget of just $400,000. Museums also are dedicated to preserving the past, while the Contemporary's whole reason for being is rooted in the present.
And perhaps it's just that the niche occupied by contemporary museums — to showcase emerging figures from the national and international arts scene — is a particularly hard sell. Art centers such as School 33 exist to promote local artists, while the Baltimore Museum of Art has the deep pockets to fund exhibits by modern masters such as Andy Warhol.
In contrast, the Contemporary has to persuade the public to see shows about artists who aren't from here, and who aren't yet famous.
Long before Spaid was hired, the Contemporary's board of trustees was aware that their organization had a perception problem.
"I think we all know that if a given family has five cultural activities that they would do in a year, the Contemporary won't be on that list," says former Contemporary board president Pam Berman.
Last year, the board adopted a strategic plan that called for increasing attendance from 6,000 to 10,000 by 2014 — and more than doubling the number of paying members from the current 200 to 500. And when Hofmann accepted the job in New Mexico, the board launched a national search for her replacement.
Most applicants had traditional backgrounds as curators or arts administrators. But, Berman says, the board was dazzled by the breadth of Spaid's experience and interests.
As the daughter of a petroleum engineer, Spaid grew up in Saudi Arabia. She still reads Arabic, though she no longer speaks it fluently; for her, shawarma and tabbouleh are "home cooking."
In college, she majored not in art history but chemical engineering. She later completed a master's degree in philosophy, which she's taught at the university level.
"I'm attracted to things that are invisible," Spaid says. "Mechanical engineers and biologists like to work with things they can touch. Almost everything that I like exists only in my head."
But unlike many ivory tower intellectuals, Spaid is comfortable with budgets and spread sheets. This is a woman who worked successfully for more than two years in the bonds department of the Wall Street securities firm Kidder, Peabody & Co.
And when, as an art world outsider, she moved to Los Angeles in the 1990s and opened a shoestring gallery, she was an unexpected success. There was one year early in the decade, she says, when Sue Spaid Fine Arts received more reviews from New York publications than any other gallery in Los Angeles.
Berman says that one of Spaid's references described her like this: "Sue is the person you should hire if you want to have fun."
Like many people with vast enthusiasms, Spaid doesn't get along with everyone. She can be blunt, and when she identifies a promising idea, she prefers to charge ahead, hanging a banner that announces a reopening date before she actually has a signed lease.
And by her own admission, she was forced out of her job at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati after three years.
"I realized that all my life, I've been fighting with my bosses because I was trying to be the museum director," she says.