One hopes that the suspension of operations announced this week by the Contemporary Museum turns out to be only a temporary hiatus. The museum has been a mainstay of the Baltimore art scene for more than two decades, and it is almost impossible to imagine the city without it. Ironically, its closing coincides with the designation of a new arts and entertainment district on the west side of downtown that could provide the perfect setting for the museum to reinvent itself. With any luck, when it closes its doors on May 31 the date will mark merely the end of one chapter and the start of another for an institution that has been famously adaptable to change.
These are hard times for all arts institutions, especially smaller, non-traditional venues that don't get a lot of state and municipal support. The Contemporary Museum's board of directors say the institution needs to rethink its business model given the falloff in donations due to the economic downturn, and it is also reviewing its exhibition and staffing policies. This isn't the first time the museum has had to pause to recharge its financial batteries, nor the first occasion on which it found itself without a home. Each time it remerged in an even more vibrant incarnation, and we fully expect it will do so again.
When what would become the Contemporary Museum first opened in 1989, it was already unique among the city's visual arts venues. It had no collections of paintings, prints or sculpture, no building in which to house or display them and the slenderest shoestring of a staff made up of its two founders and co-directors, George Ciscle and Lisa Corrin. For a time it resisted even being called a "museum" — it was known then simply as The Contemporary — and it hung vagabond shows wherever space could be found, be it in a strip-mall storefront, a vacant office building next to The Block or a long-abandoned city bus garage.
Having no use for the brick-and-mortar trappings of a traditional gallery, the Contemporary devoted itself entirely to a single, monumentally ambitious goal: Bringing what it considered the most provocative, intellectually stimulating and visually challenging artworks of our time to Baltimore audiences. Mr. Ciscle and Ms. Corrin became tireless advocates and promoters of what The Sun's critic at the time dubbed "the art of right now" — works so startlingly unconventional, adventurous and often irreverent that they inspired curiosity, passion and controversy well beyond the confines of the art world.
The effect on Baltimore was immediate, electric and lasting. A community of collectors emerged to lend their artworks and help organize exhibitions. Students came to study and be influenced by the postmodern masters the museum championed, and local artists felt emboldened to emulate their example. Suddenly Baltimore was a hotbed of cutting-edge contemporary art and artists who were willing to push the limits of the very idea of what an artwork could be.
In addition to mounting its own exhibitions, the Contemporary partnered with the city's more established institutions to create some of the most innovative and memorable shows in recent decades.
In 1992, it collaborated with the Maryland Historical Society to create the groundbreaking "Mining the Museum" exhibition, which raised the question of how African-Americans' experiences were represented in museum collections. A few years later it partnered with the Walters Art Museum on "Going for Baroque," a show tracing the influence artists of the 17th-century have had on contemporary masters.
And through a combination of ingenuity, perseverance and a sometimes messianic insistence on the value of the art it championed, the Contemporary pushed all the city's museums and galleries to pay attention to the revolutionary changes taking place in the art world by showing such works could attract enthusiastic and loyal audiences both young and old.
In the decades since it opened, the Contemporary gradually evolved into the more familiar model of a gallery with fixed address and regularly scheduled exhibitions, programs and events. Until relatively recently it operated out of a bank building at 100 W. Centre St. owned by the Walters Art Museum; that arrangement ended, however, when the Walters needed its space back to store its own collections. We'd be gratified to see the Contemporary eventually settle in either the city's new west side arts district, or the growing arts enclave north of Penn Station, where it could feed the synergy of artistic communities that are themselves transforming the face of the city. But even if it returns to its roots as an itinerant "museum without walls," it will still have a vital role to play in the artistic and cultural life of Baltimore.