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Walters Art Museum goes off the wall

Paintings in museum-quality frames are popping up outdoors around town — displayed on a post just outside the entrance to Baltimore's City Hall and along Patterson Park, mounted to the wall on a corner of the Avenue in Hampden.

These high-quality reproductions of vintage pieces from the Walters Art Museum give a new meaning to the concept of art in public places.

Within the next few weeks, 20 more works will be unveiled, from Fells Point to Meadowood Regional Park near Green Spring Station. They're a part of what the Walters calls "Off the Wall: An Open-Air Exhibition."

"It's a way to reinforce that this art belongs to the people of Baltimore," said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters.

Like similar ventures in Michigan, Ohio and Delaware, this project is aimed at increasing awareness of the museum, while providing unexpected, aesthetic encounters.

"Art has the power to make us stop in our tracks," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake during the unveiling Tuesday of the "Off the Wall" reproduction "planted" in a bed outside City Hall.

The painting is "The Tulip Folly," an 1882 work by Jean-Leon Gerome, depicting a curious incident in 17th-century Holland when troops were sent out to trample tulip beds after the crash of the tulip market.

In most cases, the reproductions are being matched to each location. The painting "Politics in an Oyster House" will soon be placed outside Bertha's Mussels, for example; an image of a lion is planned for the Maryland Zoo.

Already installed is a 17th-century Flemish painting of aristocrats visiting a gallery of exotic objects; it's attached to an exterior wall of Avenue Antiques in Hampden.

"People are surprised it's there," said Angela Devoti, who works at the store. "We've had people come in asking if it's for sale, or if they can buy the frame. And everyone's concerned about [vandalism]. But I think it's going to be OK. The men in the painting already have mustaches."

The issue of damage to the reproductions is inevitable.

"That's the first thing everybody mentions," said Matt Fry, the Walters' director of marketing and the man behind "Off the Wall." "I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt. But if anything gets on the paintings, we'll clean them or replace them."

Fry got the idea for "Off the Wall" from the museum where he worked before joining the Walters, the Detroit Institute of Arts, which launched its "Inside/Out" program three years ago.

"We've had only two works vandalized and one stolen," said Michelle Hauske, who coordinates the program. "People really respect them for the most part."

The idea of bringing a museum's artworks outdoors originated with the National Gallery in London in 2007, Hauske said. Since the Detroit Institute of Arts introduced the concept in the U.S., a few others have started similar ventures.

"I can't prove that the project has driven people into the museum," Hauske said. "There is no way of tracking that. But judging by the comments we get, it has definitely had an impact."

The reproductions of the Walters' paintings are done on weather-resistant vinyl. Attached to each is a description of the painting and a QR code for smart phones that can take the viewer to information on the Walters' website.

The paintings will rotate locations but will appear through December 2013.

Fry said that each reproduction cost about $1,000. The $23,000 for the 23 works being installed for "Off the Wall" comes from the Walters' marketing budget.

"We hope to get a sponsor for the next round," Fry said. "It would open the door to do more of them."

In Detroit, activities have sprung up around the artwork. In the works now is a bicycle tour that will include docents and performances of music from the period of the art work.

Fry envisions similar activities in Baltimore.

"I wouldn't underestimate the fun factor of this," he said.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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