Contemporary Museum names new executive director

The Contemporary Museum, which has featured provocative works by a broad sampling of cutting-edge artists, announced a new executive director this week who promises to keep things innovative.

Sue Spaid doesn't officially start until Dec. 13, but the Pennsylvania-based curator and educator has already planned more than 50 events for the next six months or so and has already sketched out exhibits through 2013.

"I'm a Virgo, so I'm big at planning," Spaid, 49, said Wednesday. "I've always been able to get people on board and get things done quickly. I find it very frustrating to have ideas you can't do."

Spaid succeeds Irene Hofmann, who left after four years at the Contemporary Museum to become director and chief curator of SITE Santa Fe, an arts organization in New Mexico.

"We weren't thinking in terms of finding anyone in Irene's image," said Pam Berman, president of the Contemporary's board of trustees. "Sue brings some very different and very compelling qualities, which Irene did as well. When you're an institution that is supposed to be contemporary, you have to keep moving forward. Sue's vision is very expansive. She has a great deal to offer that we haven't seen in Baltimore before."

The Contemporary Museum, which has a budget of under $500,000, does not get as much attention as such larger cultural institutions as the Walters Art Museum, located a block away in the Mount Vernon neighborhood, or the Baltimore Museum of Art.

But the venue, now in its 21st year, has a record for presenting vibrant exhibits and projects, including a bracing exhibit last spring by the biracial couple Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry exploring issues of race, sex and violence through multiple media; and, in 2007, the country's first museum-based show of art specifically created for cell phones.

"I see what the BMA is doing with contemporary art as totally complementary," Spaid said. "They have a lot more resources than we do. We have to be grittier, and when you're grittier, you have to appeal to a different audience. I'm trying to make this place way more active. I don't want to have an institution that people don't visit or care about. My goal is to make it a destination."

That destination will change next year, however. The museum has to leave its current space, occupied since 1999, by May 1. The landlord is the Walters, which needs the building.

"It just means my first six months are the most difficult," Spaid said. "After that, it's easy."

Several new sites are being considered, in Mount Vernon and the nearby Station North Arts and Entertainment District, Berman said.

"We're committed to staying in the city," Berman said.

Spaid, noting that the museum had "a nomadic existence" in the years before settling into its current location, said she has a summer show in mind that could "float" from place to place if no permanent home is established by then. Meanwhile, the new director will be trying to attract visitors by developing shows that offer experiences with a distinctive focus.

"The shows I do involve all the senses," Spaid said. "There's obviously a limit on touching things, but I like to do shows that involve the whole body, even if it only means having to bend way down to see part of the art. What I do is not an easy art experience. It's not where you just walk around and go 'whatever.' "

Among Spaid's interests is environmental art — works that combine art and science. One of the dozens of exhibits she has curated around the country was in 2002 for the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati called "Ecovention," which involved artists addressing ecological issues and proposing solutions.

"I would like to do a show of artists inventing new life forms," Spaid said. "There's an artist I'd like to have here who is breeding silkworms backwards, with longer wings and smaller bodies. Obviously, her motivation is to make them able to go free. Maybe that's not a good thing for the environment, but the point is to have the discussion."

It seems likely that lots of discussion will be generated by Spaid's work in the months ahead. She plans to meet the public at a reception Dec. 16 and, two days later, introduce a twice-monthly series that will mix coffee and tea tastings with artists talking about their work.

Although the current photography exhibit and another show due in winter were planned by Hofmann, Spaid will be putting her stamp on the museum quickly.

"When I first visited, I spotted the big window box by the front door," she said. "I'll have different artists every month do an installation in that space. The idea is to give people a reason to come back every month."

Spaid also plans to start a club for art teachers and involve more Baltimore artists in activities at the space.

"The Contemporary Museum has had a history of collaborations and partnerships, and that's something I've always been interested in," she said. "I'm not someone who wants to be content in my little fiefdom."

The new director plans to continue one of the museum's collaborative ventures, Mobtown Modern, an ensemble devoted to contemporary music. (The group performs currently in Station North but has been presented by the museum since its inception in 2008.)

"The interactions between visual art and music and dance and every other type of art are of great interest to Sue," Berman said.

Spaid was born in Pittsburgh, but her family moved to Saudi Arabia when she was 3 and, from there, visited Paris and other parts of the world.

Eventually, her parents settled in Texas, where Spaid earned degrees in economics and chemical engineering. She went on to get an M.A. in philosophy at Columbia University in New York, and she is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Spaid has taught courses on ethics, film, feminism and the philosophy of art at Temple, Pennsylvania State University and elsewhere. But curatorial work, including for the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and Abingdon Art Center in Jenkintown, Pa., has been a constant focus of Spaid's since the early 1990s.

The new director, who will be commuting from Jenkintown until she finds a place to live in Baltimore, sounds fully charged for the challenges at the Contemporary Museum.

"I want to find ways to get the public engaged with art," she said, "and excited about what we're doing here."