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BMA's biannual Contemporary Print Fair returns this weekend

At first glance, the Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair looks like a low-wattage shindig.

To the casual observer, the occasional gallery visitor, names like Barbara Takenaga, Deborah Kass and Madeleine Keesing have little resonance. That's because few in the printmaking world are household names. But the fair, held this weekend at the Baltimore Museum of Art, has been a showcase for leading printmakers, well-known and obscure, for over 20 years.

This year, over 2,000 prints from some 20 presses, publishers and dealers will be on display, for prices ranging from the affordable to the downright indulgent. "It's a lot of stuff," said Ann Shafer, assistant curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the museum.

There are also a handful of events revolving around the fair, including several exhibits at area galleries.

Among the vendors this year will be at least one bona fide rock star, at least as rock stars go in this world — Universal Limited Art Editions. The publisher has been influential almost since its start in 1957, when it was making lithographs for the likes of Robert Rauschenberg. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has had a standing special fund for over 50 years to acquire the printmaker's first editions. And five years ago, the museum celebrated the publisher's 50th anniversary with an exhibition.

Shafer, who was responsible for selecting this year's vendors, said Universal will likely bring prints from some of the most sought-after blue chip names at the fair, including Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly.

Also noteworthy are Graphicstudio, the University of South Florida's print institute; Tamarind Institute, a workshop from the University of New Mexico; and Gemini G.E.L. from California. Gemini is expected to offer Kelly and Richard Serra prints, among other items, Shafer said.

There are bigger fairs, such as the International Fine Print Dealers Association's annual event at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. But Baltimore's distinguishes itself by showing only contemporary work.

This has been the case since the first fair in 1992, Shafer said. The goal was then and continues to be to encourage people in Baltimore to collect works on paper. Significantly cheaper than paintings, prints are gateway art — starter purchases for new and modest collectors.

"They're very democratic," Shafer said. "There are more of them, and they're more affordable." Shafer expects prices this weekend will be between $800 and $50,000.

With some 1,500 people expected to attend over two days, many of them new to the world of collecting, the fair also plays the part of docent. Because printmaking is complicated and includes so many techniques — monotypes, screen-printing, woodcuts — it is often intimidating to novices.

"Nobody feels comfortable saying, 'That's an etching or that's an engraving,'" Shafer said. At the fair, "we're always trying to convert people to love prints."

For decades, the fair has kept the number of vendors at around 20 because of the available space at the museum. While vendors at past fairs included after-market dealers, who sell work to and from collectors, this year there's only one; the majority are publishers and presses.

Said Shafer, "I really wanted to get the people who made the prints into the building so that you as a customer can go up to their booth and talk to the publisher or the artist, to hear it straight from the horse's mouth."

If you go

The Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair is 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. $10 for one-day admission; museum members enter free. Call 443-573-1700 or go to

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