New day at the BMA as it reopens the American Wing, turns 100

In 1914, the Baltimore Museum of Art was founded with one painting and no place to hang it.

My my, how times have changed.


Today — 100 years and five days since the museum was established — the grand old Roman-style building at North Charles and 31st streets boasts a collection of nearly 95,000 paintings, sculpture, silver and furniture that spans the continents and ranges from 2500 B.C. to the present.

You can see for yourself just how far the museum has come on Sunday, when museum director Doreen Bolger and her staff throw a party that celebrates both the museum's centennial and the reopening of the American Wing after a two-year, $7.9 million restoration.


"It's interesting how the building itself has shaped what we collect," David Park Curry, the museum's senior curator of decorative arts, American painting & sculpture, said recently while standing inside the limestone neoclassical edifice that has housed the museum since 1929.

"For the first 50 years, we only collected Maryland art. One of the goals of our reinstallation was to highlight the connections between Maryland and American art and the broader world."

The bash will include such throwbacks as a ceremonial step-scrubbing and demonstrations of silver engraving, needlepoint, stained-glass and clock-making. There will be family art-making activities, storytelling, an oral-history project and traditional, 19th-century games of hoops and sticks.

Harpist Jasmine Hogan will perform an in-gallery demonstration of her instrument, and live music will be provided by local favorites Brooks Long, Caleb Stine and others.

Visitors can even channel their inner Sylvester Stallone when the historic entrance to the museum designed by architect John Russell Pope is opened officially for the first time since 1982.

Go on — we dare you. Jog up those classic limestone steps to the neoclassical palace on top, while humming the theme to the "Rocky" movies in your head.

Between partying, patronizing the food trucks lined up outside the museum and enjoying a slice of the birthday cake prepared by celebrity bakers Charm City Cakes, be sure to leave time for looking at the art.

Since the multiphase, five-year, $28 million renovation of the museum began in 2011, up to 60 percent of the museum has been closed. As of Sunday, 70 percent will be open. (The African and Asian galleries and a new Center for Learning & Creativity will be unveiled next year.)


Bolger can't wait to see how visitors will react when they walk into the reinstalled and spruced-up galleries and find their favorite works in new surroundings.

"I love going into the galleries and sitting for a really long period of time and watching other people looking at some of the great works in this collection like 'Rinaldo and Armida.'" Bolger says, referring to the masterpiece by the 17th-century Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck.

"There's lots of space around it and the lighting is perfect. I love watching people read the wall labels. I love watching them look up information about other works on BMA Go Mobile," the museum's app.

Here are some of the changes museum-goers will notice in the redesigned museum:

The American Wing

"A critic once described these two big galleries as an airplane hangar," Curry says.


No one would make that mistake now, unless they spend time in airplane hangars whose center hall sports three massive metal chandeliers from 1929.

When Curry was figuring out how to organize the art, he took his cues from Pope's design.

The oldest objects in the American collection, which date from the mid-18th century, are housed in galleries closest to the historic entrance on the south. As visitors make their way toward the back of the building, the artwork generally moves forward in time.

Many museum-goers will first stop in the salon-style gallery of Maryland art, or in the four architectural interiors of Maryland homes dating from the late 18th centuries. (These interiors have become galleries showcasing silver and painted furniture.)

At the museum's north end, visitors will find rooms featuring creations by such 20th century homegrown masters as Louis Comfort Tiffany, Georgia O'Keeffe and Jacob Lawrence.

"We wanted to kind of pull you through Pope's architecture," Curry says. "We've been very careful to bring back his sense of distance and perspective. He wanted you to be able to see through his building."


The curator also mingled artworks from different periods.

For example, Frederick Shirley's "lava" glass vase from around 1878 seems to anticipate drip painting by three-quarters of a century when it's displayed near Jackson Pollock's 1943 painting, "Water Birds."

The layout is so playful and engaging that museum-goers may be surprised to learn that there actually are fewer objects on display after the renovation than there were before.

In the past, the galleries showcased about 1,000 objects from the museum's 30,000-item collection. Now, there are about 850 — and 50 of those are either brand new or rarely were shown before.

Bolger and Curry want viewers to be able to stand back and consider not just each individual artwork, but how they inform and relate to one another.

"Contemporary curatorial practice wants to leave some space around each object so that viewers can fully experience it," Bolger said. "We want you to have quality time."


The East Entrance

The East entrance that visitors have been using for more than three decades also has undergone a $4.5 million face-lift.

Instead of a mound of landscaping in the center of the circular driveway, there's now a major contemporary sculpture by artist Joel Shapiro.

The new doors are made of glass, and there's a sweeping new staircase made of Italian marble.*

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The Museum Shop

After quietly reopening earlier this month, the redesigned museum shop already is attracting throngs of browsers and buyers. Changes include a central island of jewelry cases, tables just for books, a wall of reproductions of museum masterworks for sale, and a children's area.


Chances are that shoppers — and their patient companions — also will appreciate the extra seating.

As Curry puts it:

"The museum is a little bit like a Rubik's cube. What's already happened has an impact on what's coming next. We wanted our visitors to have a sense of discovery around every corner."

* An earlier version of this story misstated the source of the marble staircase in the East Entrance.