Baltimore’s Contemporary museum goes on hiatus, its future in question

Less than four years after announcing its return following 15 months in limbo, The Contemporary, Baltimore’s vagabond art-museum-without-walls, is once again going on hiatus and facing an uncertain future.

Although it is not closing, The Contemporary has effectively ceased operations. Its last two staff members were laid off Dec. 9, and it has no exhibitions or other events on its schedule for the coming months.

“The Contemporary is not closing,” reads a statement released Tuesday morning by The Contemporary’s nine-member board, which promises “to spend the next several months to determine the best path forward.”

Board Vice President Debra Rubino said the board is committed to keeping The Contemporary going, and is “strategizing” to figure out the best way to proceed. With no forthcoming projects and no clear path laid out for future operations, however, she said the board “reluctantly” was forced to lay off staff. She said The Contemporary remains solvent, and “is not bankrupt or anything.”

The Contemporary lost its executive director in March, when Deana Haggag left for Chicago to serve as president and CEO of the arts organization United States Artists. The board’s search for a successor was unsuccessful.

“At this point, without a leader in place and without a really solid plan, there was no program need for them to implement,” Rubino said of the decision to lay off the last remaining staff members, Artistic Director Ginevra Shay and Education Director Lee Heinemann.

“It has been an honor and pleasure serving Baltimore in this capacity,” Shay wrote in a letter sent to friends and professional contacts. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. My time with this radical nomadic museum has been life changing, and I will look back on it with great fondness, always.”

Rubino emphasized that the board foresees a future for The Contemporary, which opened in Baltimore in 1989. “Absolutely,” she said, “without reservation.”

As described by its founder, gallery owner George Ciscle, The Contemporary was envisioned as an art space “that would celebrate less-known artists and involve a broad spectrum of the community in the creative process,” according to a February 1996 article in The Baltimore Sun. Difficulty in finding a permanent space led The Contemporary to embrace a museum-without-walls existence; in its first seven years, it staged 11 exhibitions in such varied spaces as an old bus station, a strip-mall storefront and a vacant office building near The Block, on East Baltimore Street.

The Contemporary – officials have assiduously avoided calling it a museum for much of its existence – finally moved in 1999 into a permanent space, an unused warehouse owned by the Walters Art Museum. But the economic downturn that began in 2008 took its toll, and The Contemporary suspended operations and laid off its staff in May 2012.

It returned the following July, however, with Haggag as executive director. Since then, it has organized several major art projects, again at locations throughout the city; its most recent project, an exhibition featuring a mixed-media art project by Michael Jones McKean that was installed in the former Hutzler’s department store on Howard Street, was on display from February through May of this year. The Contemporary also sponsored lectures and artist retreats.

A mission statement on The Contemporary’s website refers to it as “an incubator that commissions site-specific and subject-oriented projects.” It also lists three guiding principles: “artists matter, collaboration is key and audience is everywhere.”

Rubino said the board has set no timetable for The Contemporary’s return and has no concrete ideas on what form it will take, but remains convinced there’s a place for it on the Baltimore arts scene.

“The last four years or so in particular, we were very visible, we were very connected, there were so many different parts of the community that we touched,” she said. “It’s too vital to say ‘Goodbye,’ I think that’s how everybody feels.”

ckaltenbach@baltsun.com

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