When Baltimore Museum of Art director Doreen Bolger throws open the giant carved wood-and-glass doors to the museum's historic entrance next Sunday for the first time in more than three decades, the museum will celebrate its 100th anniversary by going back to the future.
The reopening of the 1929 entrance designed by architect John Russell Pope, with its flight of limestone steps and portico roof supported by six Ionic columns, will signal the completion of the second and arguably most significant phase of a nearly five-year, $28 million renovation in which virtually every aspect of the museum has been rethought with the needs of current and future visitors in mind.
Like arts institutions throughout the U.S., Baltimore's flagship museum is striving to reinvent itself for a new generation while remaining faithful to its legacy. Museum attendance nationwide increased by 4.3 percent from 2011 to 2012, the last year for which figures are available, according to the American Alliance of Museums. Visitors to the BMA have declined during the renovation, when as much as 60 percent of the museum was closed. Once construction has been completed, officials hope to welcome 220,000 visitors a year.
At the Baltimore Museum of Art, reinvention means rethinking the presentation of its American art collection, creating a traveling gallery called "the BMA Outpost" that visits underserved neighborhoods, mounting exhibits on such hot-button social issues as immigration and homelessness, and greatly expanding the floor space allocated to African and Asian art.
"From the very beginning," Bolger said, "the people who were this museum's biggest donors and supporters — people like Saidie May and Claribel and Etta Cone — were concerned about the community and the world.
"They also loved the artists like Picasso and Matisse who were making the contemporary art of their day. If they were alive today, the Cones and Mrs. May would be hanging out at the Creative Alliance and The Windup Space and looking for the great artists of the future."
That's why, when Bolger is faced with a tough decision, she'll ask herself: "What would Saidie do? What would Claribel and Etta do?"
So when the Contemporary Wing was renovated in 2011 and 2012, the curators incorporated a virtual tour of the sisters' adjoining apartments, created a decade earlier,* that showed the collection as it was displayed in their homes. Next, Bolger and her staff embarked upon the two-year, $7.9 million reinstallation of the 15,000-square-foot American Wing, which included the goal of revealing Pope's neoclassical architecture. (Since 1982, visitors have been walking into the museum through the modern Zamoiski entrance to the east.)
As curator David Park Curry put it: "The biggest piece of art we own is this building."
Visitors also will find that the American Wing features a playful mix of paintings, sculpture, furniture and silverware that crosses not just genres but centuries. For example, a graceful desk from the late 1700s butts up against a modern still-life artwork reverse-painted on glass nearly 200 years later by New Mexico artist Rebecca Salsbury James.
The museum's American holdings span from 1760 to 1960 and include more than 30,000 artworks. Experts say that Baltimore's American collection is among the finest on the East Coast.
"Not only is Baltimore's museum known nationally and internationally for its collection," said Christine Anagnos, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, "but it's also known for its outreach to the community. Doreen is a very civic-minded museum director. When the museum went free, that was a game-changer."
In addition to the 2006 decision by the BMA and the Walters Art Museum to stop charging admission, other innovations include hiring the museum's first-ever chief technology officer in September, and designing the "BMA Go Mobile" app, which has additional information about 84 objects in the collections.
Anagnos thinks that midsized museums such as Baltimore's, which has an annual budget of $15.1 million and 95,000 items, are able to "pivot more quickly to the needs of their communities" than can the mega-institutions of New York and Los Angeles.
An example of that pivoting is the BMA Outpost, which set up its flag this week outside the St. Francis Neighborhood Center in Reservoir Hill.
On a warm and sunny afternoon, about a dozen children gathered around BMA staffer Katie Bachler to examine a print of a family gathered inside a Nayarite house. The original ceramic artwork dates from 300-400 BC and is housed in the museum's Ancient Americas collection.
"What do you think these people are doing?" Bachler asks the kids. "Is it like something that your family does?"
"Maybe they're cooking," 9-year-old Samar Darby replies. "Me and my mother made a pumpkin pie together."
But the kids don't just examine masterpieces of the past in the Outpost. They also make artwork that will be included in a future exhibition.
The museum is planning a 2015 show that will focus on the multiple aspects of home, including artistic reflections on vagrants and refugees. That exhibition will incorporate in some form drawings created by the young artists.
Bachler hopes the Outpost will forge continuing relationships with community groups such as the St. Francis center, which serves provides everything from homework help to a hot meal for 43 neighborhood kids.
"I can see this mobile gallery becoming a regular resource," Torbin Green, St. Francis' program director, said. "One of the things we really stress here is learning, and this helps us fill out the daily enrichment activities we provide for the kids."
Arts groups in Baltimore and beyond are reaching out to the wider community in ways large and small.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids program provides music lessons to children living in impoverished neighborhoods. Everyman Theatre conducts touch tours for its blind patrons. And the Walters Art Museum was one of three institutions to jointly build a school in Iraq that trains curators to repair ancient artifacts damaged in wars.
Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and past president of the art directors' association, said that museums nationwide aren't content simply to be "temples of beauty." Now, he said, museums see themselves as instruments of social change.
For instance, the Dallas Museum of Art worked with Latino families to create its first-ever Spanish-language printed guide and gallery wall labels, written by the participants themselves.
Judges in Williamstown, Mass., sentence juvenile offenders to attend an enrichment program at the nearby Sterling and Francine Clark Museum. And the Williams College Museum of Art lends original works to students to hang in their dorm rooms.
Other museums have put together programs to help patients with Alzheimer's disease, veterans afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder and people with eating disorders.
As Rub put it: "Museums have always tried to answer the question, 'How can we be useful?' The classic example of the past few decades is that the arts are an economic driver and fuel tourism.
"Recently, our role has begun evolving in a new direction. We know now that exposure to the arts is enormously useful for developing pattern recognition and cognitive abilities. There are things you can learn from looking at a painting or a sculpture or a video that you can't learn in any other way."
For Bolger, the museum extends far beyond the grand Roman-style edifice that Pope built. She's become known for championing fledgling artists and patronizing local startup troupes.
J. Buck Jabaily had just graduated from college when he moved to Baltimore in 2007 to help found Single Carrot Theatre. Bolger not only invited the young director to her home at 6 a.m. on a Sunday to help him write a grant proposal, she also made him breakfast.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find another arts leader who has taken a position of power and influence and authority and done so much with it to help other arts groups," Jabaily said.
"When Doreen makes a presentation, it's rarely all about the BMA. Instead, she talks about the entire constellation of arts groups in Baltimore. The arts are a ecosystem, and Doreen gets that better than anyone else I know."
Not surprisingly, Bolger's vision for the museum includes working with local arts groups. In the past, the museum steps and plaza have been used for the High Zero and Whartscape music festivals. Bolger envisions that the plaza could eventually become a community gathering place.
When the Center for Learning & Creativity opens in 2015, it will include a "Community Commons" that pairs local artists with nonprofit groups. For instance, an artist who makes installations of domestic spaces might team up with a housing advocacy group to produce a project on the "hidden homeless" who don't go to shelters but double up with families and friends.
"We have to be willing to be more inclusive and more open," Bolger said. "We can be part of not just changing, but of leading change in this city."
Finally, the museum has three relatively new exhibition spaces that showcase the work of the best living local and national artists — some still in their 20s. One gallery is dedicated to works on paper, the Black Box shows videos and films, and The Front Room accommodates a range of items that include sculptures and graffiti.
"The rate at which the present and the future are becoming the past is speeding up," Bolger said. "You can't just sit there and say: 'Well, I changed five years ago — that's enough.' You have to always be willing to know that new things are afoot.
"This museum will rise to new heights in the future. We have to."
January 2011: Renovation begins when the Contemporary Wing closes.
November 2012: The Contemporary Wing, which houses the Cone Collection, reopens with new interactive galleries and the museum's first mobile art guide.
November 2014: The BMA will celebrate its 100th anniversary by reopening its historic entrance and reinstalling the American Wing. Renovations also are made to the BMA shop and the museum's east entrance.
April 2015: The museum will reopen its African galleries, which will occupy triple the space the collection did before, and the Asian gallery, which will have double its previous footprint.
October 2015: The renovation will wrap up with the unveiling of the new Center for Learning & Creativity.
If you go
The Baltimore Museum of Art will hold an opening celebration from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 23 at 31st and Charles streets. Free. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.
* An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the year the Cone sisters apartment virtual tour was created.