Eschewing flashy, out-of-town shows, Baltimore museums look inward

In the 1990s, crowds packed the Walters Art Museum to see a touring show of artifacts from the reign of China's first emperor. They flocked as well to the Baltimore Museum of Art to see a collection from London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

Those were the days of the so-called blockbusters, the traveling exhibits of high-profile art. The prevailing trend now at museums in Baltimore and across the country is to cut down on the number of touring shows.

"They're expensive, and money is so tight," said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Museum of Art. "We would have brought in two major shows in 2007-2008, but we couldn't afford it."

Museums aren't left with empty galleries, however. They are hunting and scouring — inside their own collections.

And that is giving visitors a different experience, a different perspective. In many cases, they're seeing pieces that have been brought out of the vaults for the first time. Long-displayed works might be moved into new settings, juxtaposed with different items.

"The permanent collections need to be revitalized," said Jay Fisher, the BMA's deputy director for curatorial activities, "so that people will come back and feel something different."

The Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, just wrapped up a large and provocative photography exhibit, "Seeing Now," drawn from its extensive collection. Another big, in-house show will open in the fall.

At the Walters, several popular shows have likewise been assembled from its permanent collection, including a jewelry exhibit in 2008.

More intimate exhibits are regularly put together each season; several Walters-owned drawings, prints and watercolors with a nautical theme will be featured in a show that opens Saturday. Another, focusing on the museum's collection of writing instruments, will open next month.

The Baltimore venues are hardly alone in looking inward, especially since the Great Recession began. The Association of Art Museum Directors reported in 2009 that 70 percent of directors surveyed indicated that they would showcase more of their permanent collection in future exhibitions.

With their extensive holdings, Baltimore's two major art museums are in a particularly strong position. The Walters owns about 35,000 objects, the BMA more than 90,000.

At any given time, the public sees only 15 percent to 20 percent of the Walters' collection.

"Our curatorial staff is very good at building exhibits out of our own collections," Vikan said. "This stuff belongs to the city of Baltimore. Our job is to get out of the way and let the people enjoy what is theirs."

Vikan said "two or three major shows" drawn from the museum's holdings were in the planning stage and would be produced in the next few years. "We have been given some collections that will be revealed in the fullness of time," he said.

The BMA's practice of delving into its vaults predates recessionary pressures. It started with the arrival of Doreen Bolger as director in 1998.

"Before Doreen, the attitude here was that we were dependent on the outside exhibits to get as many people inside the door as possible," Fisher said. "When Doreen came, there was a decided shift to do more exhibits centered on our own collection."

With museums pursuing more in-house ventures and the recession still restricting growth, inter-institutional lending of art might be expected to slow down.

"There was a low level of borrowing from us as the markets took a nose dive," Vikan said. "But it has come back. The general sense is that things are coming back in other places, too."

The BMA has noticed no drop in loan requests over the years. "It seems that someone is asking for [Matisse's] 'Blue Nude' almost every week," Fisher said.

Touring exhibits are still seen at the BMA, but, as in the case of the recent Andy Warhol show, they are likely to include items from the museum's holdings.

"The boundaries are less clear between temporary exhibits and the permanent collections," Bolger said.

At the Walters and the BMA, the process of deciding what material to turn into an exhibit starts with the curators, "because they obviously know the collection," Fisher said.

Other staff members gradually enter the discussion, looking at the project from various points of view — marketing, development, education, community impact. Bolger described the planning for in-house exhibits as "more like a team sport."

One proposal that started bubbling through the BMA two years ago will reach the final stage at the end of October, when the public will be welcomed into a substantial and unusual exhibit of prints done in series. This project is the brainchild of Rena Hoisington, associate curator of the BMA's 65,000 prints, drawings and photographs.

"The idea came to me when I saw two shows of contemporary prints in series at other museums," Hoisington said. "Shows of series are fairly unusual, and the BMA has hundreds of series. I wanted to show the history of series from the late 15th century to the present."

There was no need to look to other museums to help flesh out this project. "Because we have such a vast collection of works on paper, we can do pretty much any project without a loan," Fisher said.

Once the series idea was embraced at the BMA, funding was sought. It came from the Mellon Foundation, which was particularly interested in an educational component of Hoisington's proposal.

Eight students from the Johns Hopkins University and two from the Maryland Institute College of Art met weekly at the museum for about three months to help choose the prints after Hoisington did the initial whittling from the hundreds of complete series in the museum's vaults.

In the end, everyone agreed on 29 series — 349 prints in all — along with an 18th-century deck of Italian playing cards by an anonymous artist.

The material includes the compelling "Apocalypse" series of woodcuts begun by Albrecht Durer in 1496 and the strangely vivid lithographs from 1932 by El Lissitzky depicting characters in a futuristic opera called "Victory over the Sun."

"It's an opportunity to show what great prints we have," Hoisington said. "More than half have never been on view before."

Being able to display what is usually stored away is a strong motivation for museums that would not likely diminish even if appealing blockbuster touring shows were to return in a big way.

"I feel so proud of the collection here," Bolger said.