BMA's renovated Contemporary Wing redefines what belongs in a museum

Next weekend, visitors to the Baltimore Art Museum's newly renovated Contemporary Wing may find themselves staring up at a hole in the ceiling, their mouths gaping open like fish.

They'll have been hooked by a central feature of the $6.5 million building project — artist Sarah Oppenheimer's playful, gravity-defying illusion with the enigmatic name "W-120301." And who would blame them for staring?

How often can we watch someone appear to walk up a wall?

Oppenheimer knocked holes in walls and cut through ceiling to change the architecture of the Baltimore Museum of Art. And, that's not a bad metaphor for museum director Doreen Bolger's goal to knock down the walls between the museum and the community. This is just the first phase of the museum's ambitious spruce-up. The total project is expected to take three years to complete and will cost $24.5 million.

The Contemporary Wing's new look isn't just about improved lighting in the galleries or an updated fire suppression system. It's about redefining the kind of art that ought to be hung on — or in Oppenheimer's case, through — gallery walls.

The week before the reopening, as carpenters were putting finishing touches on the new wing, Bolger's excitement was palpable.

"We want people to know that this isn't their grandmother's museum," Bolger says. "It's their granddaughter's museum. We want art to be meaningful for people, for them to have experiences here they've never had here before."

So, for the first time in its 98-year history, the museum will display street art in the form of two life-size murals by the Baltimore artist known as Gaia, along with a "sound installation" — Bolger's words — with no obvious visual component. In other words, music.

There will be a new black-box gallery for videos and artworks created by light, and a new gallery dedicated to drawings and works on paper. Among the latter are more than 40 drawings of dancers by Henri Matisse that have never before been displayed in Baltimore.

From time to time, visitors may find themselves staring at a glassed-in rectangle connecting two galleries and find themselves wondering, "Is that a window, or is that an art exhibit?" They may pass through the rotunda and listen to a haunting ballad called "The Shallow Sea" sung by artist Susan Phillipsz and wonder, "Why is this being performed in a museum instead of a nightclub?"

"For me, those are exactly the kinds of questions that I hope will engage our visitors," says Kristen Hileman, the BMA's curator of contemporary art.

Even inside the rarefied world of museums, curators like Hileman who work with contemporary art face an unusual challenge. Specialists in Egyptian or medieval art don't have to rethink their collections from top to bottom every decade because each painting or sculpture in their specialty has already been created. But contemporary curators are the modern-day equivalent of 18th-century surveyors, charting new territory as they move through it.

So for Hileman, the renovation of the Contemporary Wing was a rare opportunity. Everything was up for grabs. Nothing was impossible. If Oppenheimer needed major structural alterations to the building to accommodate her new pieces, so be it.

"The museum has been willing to make very significant changes to their infrastructure for my installation, and it's been a fantastic experience," Oppenheimer says.

"They basically cut a hole through the concrete slab underneath the flooring, put in additional steel beams and rerouted the duct work. I think it's particularly fearless for a museum to integrate the construction work with the artwork and to allow an artist to be a central part of the renovation process."

And all those vertically walking people standing in front of Robert Motherwell's brown-and-black canvas from 1964 haven't simultaneously developed a superpower. A cleverly angled mirror embedded in Oppenheimer's piece makes them appear to be moving around the gallery vertically, instead of horizontally.

The galleries are arranged thematically, exploring such concepts as "the poetry of the everyday" and "the legacy of pop." Though there are more than 100 new works to look at, viewers can also visit old favorites by such modern masters as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Baltimore's own Grace Hartigan.

Hileman chose to display artwork with a human component. Too many people are put off by modern art, she says. They think it's cold because their experience with the cutting edge is limited strictly to conceptual pieces (though museum guests will find this type of work on exhibit, as well).

That human touch includes not just Matisse's drawings — in what seems to be three quick lines, the artist captures not just his dancer's musculature, but, seemingly, their souls — and Zwelethu Mthethwa's arresting photographs of the residents of his native South Africa.

"I like people, and I like art that sparks conversations between people," Hileman says. "I look for works that someone will have a visceral reaction to. Visitors should be able to find some warmth inside museum galleries."

That's why she commissioned Gaia, a 24-year-old graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, to create a temporary installation of two large murals pasted up on both sides of a narrow hallway. They depict a two-story rowhouse in Remington.

On one side, the faces of neighborhood residents are superimposed on the apartment building. The building is drawn in a black and white, but the people are larger than life and portrayed in glowing color.

The other mural represents the artist's updating of Paul Gaugin's 1892 painting "Woman with a Mango." It shows a young woman standing in front of the rowhouse and looking pensively over her shoulder.

The installation, which will be on display through May, represents Gaia's first appearance in a major art museum, and the BMA's first acknowledgment of the growing cultural importance of the spray-painted drawings that decorate abandoned buildings, boxcars and the undersides of bridges.

"I think my commission represents the museum's commitment to the local art scene," Gaia wrote in an email from Indonesia, where he's working on a project.

"Street art has achieved tremendous attention of late, and represents a greater shift in the United States toward urban living. The artwork and projects that I have produced in the streets of Baltimore are part of a greater global movement."

As much as Hileman wants to show the human aspects of contemporary art, Bolger wants to change the nature of the museum-going experience. So, the Contemporary Wing now has a "Big Table" equipped with art supplies that's geared primarily for adults, not children. Visitors can jot a quick sketch, and then display their finished drawings on the wall hooks created for that purpose.

The museum also is unrolling BMA GoMobile, a website that can be accessed from smartphones. (Guests without the devices can check out an iPod Touch.) Through the website, visitors can email themselves images of paintings or sculptures that strike their fancy, put together a personal tour of the museum's holdings on such themes as "Artwork about the Body" or listen to interviews with such artists as Oliver Herring, Thomas Hirschhorn and Joyce Scott.

"We're trying to get people to think of art as an experience," Bolger says.

"It's not just looking, but doing. We want people to walk in and see the faces of people they know on the gallery walls. This is the opening salvo for what a museum can become in the 21st century."

If you go

A free after-hours celebration running 9 p.m. Saturday to midnight features dancing and performance art. The wing officially reopens Sunday, Nov. 18, with live music, an art-inspired fashion show and robotics demonstrations 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 10 Art Museum Drive, Charles Village. or 443-573-1700.

Renovation facts

Total renovation cost: $24.5 million

Cost of Phase 1 (Contemporary Wing): $6.5 million; includes two new roofs, new gallery lighting and a fire suppression system.

Contemporary Wing closed for renovation: Jan. 17, 2011

Layout: 16 galleries over 16,000 square feet

Highlights: Soundproof black-box gallery for light, sound and video works; new gallery dedicated to works on paper, including drawings by Henri Matisse; two new interactive galleries; a new mobile website, GoMobile, that will let visitors personalize their visit.

Next: Galleries for American and African art and the main lobby have closed and will be renovated; the historic entrance will be reopened.

Expected completion of third phase: In 2014, to celebrate the museum's centennial

Is the project on budget and on schedule? Yes.