When Doreen Bolger stood atop a flight of limestone stairs last fall and unbolted the long-closed historic entrance to one of Baltimore's most venerable arts institutions, she threw open the doors to the museum in more ways than one.
It was a gesture that symbolized her dynamic tenure at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where Bolger worked to make the institution she loved more accessible to the public. Bolger, 66, announced Wednesday that she'll retire on June 30 after 17 years as the museum director.
"It's important to know when the time's right to make a change," Bolger said.
"Last fall, as we were celebrating the museum's 100th anniversary, I realized that many of the things that I had wanted to accomplish as director we'd pulled off. I'm anticipating that a great new leader will be brought in to move the museum forward."
James Thornton, vice chairman of the museum's board of trustees, said that a decision will be made soon about who will run the museum temporarily after Bolger leaves. There's no timetable for choosing her replacement, he said.
The announcement caused a ripple through the local arts community, where her advocacy for struggling painters, actors and musicians has won her praise.
Bolger's most visible accomplishments include leading the drive for free admission and overseeing the renovations of collections housing Post-Impressionist and American masterworks. This month, the museum will reopen galleries containing four times as much space for African art and twice as much space for Asian art as had existed previously.
Bolger found the funding to open the historic entrance that had been closed for nearly three decades.
And along the way, she nearly doubled the museum's endowment, from $56.2 million to $101 million.
But Bolger has also faced challenges, including a decline in visitors at a time when admissions to museums nationwide have inched up.
"Doreen is leaving a great, great legacy and it's symbolized by opening those doors," said Christine Anagnos, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors.
"The way she's transformed that institution is impressive. I've been struck by the diversity of people I've seen there. ... There was a bustle and a vibe there that felt very homey."
Anagnos described it as a "generational shift," and it's occurring in other U.S. cities.
Some of Bolger's most important contributions occurred behind the scenes. People in the arts community recall the ways she has embraced up-and-comers, such as showcasing local artists in exhibitions at the museum or occupying one of the 20 seats in a storefront theater in Station North to support a startup troupe.
"Doreen is one of the most ardent proponents of the notion that the arts are an ecosystem," said Jeannie Howe, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.
"She thinks that when the arts and the wider cultural community work together, that's where they find their strength and contribute the most to their city."
The museum Bolger is leaving is different from the one she found in 1998.
Bolger inherited a museum with a $9 million budget, an endowment of $56.2 million, 100,000 artworks and 1997 attendance near 320,000, according to Sun reports.
Now, it has a budget of $15.1 million, a $101 million endowment, 95,000 artworks, and attendance of about 180,000 people supplemented by an additional 100,000 visits online, museum officials said.
But Bolger said attendance isn't the only measure of a museum's success — especially when up to 60 percent of the institution's galleries were closed during four years of renovations.
As she put it: "The question is: What do you do with what you have, and how do you make the museum a place that people want to return to?"
Bolger says arts leaders must address the evolving role of the institutions they helm, whether that means incorporating new technology or creating programs to address social ills.
"As we look forward to the next 100 years," she said, "museums will have to become a civic forum where people of very different backgrounds can come together to discuss what they have in common and what separates them.
"That's why museums matter."