New space, quirky ideas could turn around the Contemporary Museum

A 12-foot-long white banner with black letters has been suction-cupped to the first-floor windows of the former Craig Flinner art gallery at Charles and Centre streets. It reads:

"Future home of the Contemporary Museum. Opening January, 2012."

At least, that's the plan. In fact, the date for the grand reopening is something of a moving target.

At the moment, Sue Spaid, the Contemporary's executive director, doesn't have a signed lease. The museum's furniture and most of its documents are in storage. Spaid and nine part-time staff members are crammed into a 500-square-foot temporary headquarters on St. Paul Street. And the architect in charge of the renovation is insisting that there's no way he can finish a job so ambitious in a mere seven weeks.

"We're living in a total lurch," Spaid says, but she sounds more excited than dismayed.

After 10 years of staying put, the Contemporary is on the move.

Founded in 1989, the arts group known then only as "the Contemporary" has explored the art and culture of our time for the past 23 years. It has consistently mounted innovative, important exhibitions, from the nation's first museum show of cellphone art to "Bearing Witness" by the interracial husband-and-wife team of multimedia artists Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry.

The only problem with the exhibits was that relatively few people came to see them. Annual attendance in recent years rarely topped 6,000. Though direct, apple-to-apple comparisons can be misleading, the contemporary museums in such midsized cities as Cincinnati and Pittsburgh draw about 55,000 visitors annually.

"There's a crazy, wonderful, creative energy here in Baltimore that surpasses that of any city in which I've ever lived," says Sarah Doherty, who teaches interdisciplinary sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

"But when my students would talk about what was going on, the Contemporary would never come up. It had a much quieter presence than I would have expected. But in the past 12 months, the Contemporary seems to have become a more active part of the fabric of the local art world."

Partly that's because of the 50-year-old Spaid, who celebrates her one-year anniversary at the museum's helm this weekend.

In December and January alone, her staff devised and organized three exuberantly off-kilter events, including a grass-eating party for Saturday night in Greenmount West complete with a sod installation, chia pets provided by Baltimore Clayworks and musical entertainment from — what else? — a bluegrass band. (The green edibles were varieties of lawn plants, not the controlled substance.)

On Jan. 28, the Contemporary will throw an overnight "sleep concert" for families. Jammies and sleeping bags are encouraged; hot cocoa and live lullabies will be provided.

Later this month, Spaid hopes that Penn Station will temporarily double as an art gallery. She's negotiating to put installations by four local artists into unused retail space inside the railway terminal. The exhibit, called "Moving Right Along," would run for two months.

"I've always thought of myself as being in the memory business," Spaid says. "I try to figure out how to plan events that will create lasting memories for people."

If the Contemporary has yet to fully grip the public's imagination, the reasons why are anyone's guess. Spaid's two most recent predecessors are highly respected and have gone on to shepherd nationally known institutions.

Thom Collins, who led the Contemporary from 2003 to 2005, is now director of the Miami Art Museum. His successor, Irene Hofmann, left the Contemporary in the fall of 2010 to head the Phillips Collection in Santa Fe, N.M.

"I have to say, I was totally unprepared for how difficult it is in Baltimore to get people to see contemporary art," Spaid says.

"It's more difficult here than of any place I've ever lived. In Cincinnati, which is half Baltimore's size, 1,800 people attend openings at the Contemporary Arts Center. That's three times the number we'll get here."

That's puzzling, because the Contemporary started off with a bang.

In 1992, the young organization shook up the art world nationally when it co-sponsored "Mining the Museum" — artist Fred Wilson took up residence at the Maryland Historical Society and reinterpreted its exhibits in the light of slavery.

But during the past decade, the Contemporary began to seem less relevant, somehow less … well, contemporary.

Perhaps, some speculate, problems began in 1999 when the organization moved into its first permanent home next to the Walters Art Museum. Once the Contemporary no longer was leading a nomadic existence, it wasn't under as strong a compulsion to actively engage the outside world.

Perhaps the decision to add "museum" to the organization's name confused the public. The term implies a well-funded permanent collection, while the Contemporary owns no artifacts and has an annual budget of just $400,000. Museums also are dedicated to preserving the past, while the Contemporary's whole reason for being is rooted in the present.

And perhaps it's just that the niche occupied by contemporary museums — to showcase emerging figures from the national and international arts scene — is a particularly hard sell. Art centers such as School 33 exist to promote local artists, while the Baltimore Museum of Art has the deep pockets to fund exhibits by modern masters such as Andy Warhol.

In contrast, the Contemporary has to persuade the public to see shows about artists who aren't from here, and who aren't yet famous.

Long before Spaid was hired, the Contemporary's board of trustees was aware that their organization had a perception problem.

"I think we all know that if a given family has five cultural activities that they would do in a year, the Contemporary won't be on that list," says former Contemporary board president Pam Berman.

Last year, the board adopted a strategic plan that called for increasing attendance from 6,000 to 10,000 by 2014 — and more than doubling the number of paying members from the current 200 to 500. And when Hofmann accepted the job in New Mexico, the board launched a national search for her replacement.

Most applicants had traditional backgrounds as curators or arts administrators. But, Berman says, the board was dazzled by the breadth of Spaid's experience and interests.

As the daughter of a petroleum engineer, Spaid grew up in Saudi Arabia. She still reads Arabic, though she no longer speaks it fluently; for her, shawarma and tabbouleh are "home cooking."

In college, she majored not in art history but chemical engineering. She later completed a master's degree in philosophy, which she's taught at the university level.

"I'm attracted to things that are invisible," Spaid says. "Mechanical engineers and biologists like to work with things they can touch. Almost everything that I like exists only in my head."

But unlike many ivory tower intellectuals, Spaid is comfortable with budgets and spread sheets. This is a woman who worked successfully for more than two years in the bonds department of the Wall Street securities firm Kidder, Peabody & Co.

And when, as an art world outsider, she moved to Los Angeles in the 1990s and opened a shoestring gallery, she was an unexpected success. There was one year early in the decade, she says, when Sue Spaid Fine Arts received more reviews from New York publications than any other gallery in Los Angeles.

Berman says that one of Spaid's references described her like this: "Sue is the person you should hire if you want to have fun."

Like many people with vast enthusiasms, Spaid doesn't get along with everyone. She can be blunt, and when she identifies a promising idea, she prefers to charge ahead, hanging a banner that announces a reopening date before she actually has a signed lease.

And by her own admission, she was forced out of her job at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati after three years.

"I realized that all my life, I've been fighting with my bosses because I was trying to be the museum director," she says.

Eyebrows also were raised after Mobtown Modern, Baltimore's innovative and critically acclaimed new-music group, abruptly severed its long-standing relationship with the Contemporary shortly after Spaid took over.

Spaid says she doesn't know what caused the rupture, and neither Berman nor Mobtown's co-founders will discuss the matter.

"Mobtown Modern is no longer associated with the Contemporary Museum," Brian Sacawa, the group's co-founder and saxophone player, wrote in an email, "so I do not wish to comment for the story."

As it happens, both organizations are embarking on exciting new phases. Mobtown raised the $5,000 it needed to fund its 2011-2012 season, and is operating independently for the first time in its nearly four-year history.

And the Contemporary is getting ready to move into a 5,000-square-foot home at 505 N. Charles St. — if not in January, then by February or March.

The relocation is as much symbolic as it is physical. Though the Contemporary will acquire an extra 300 square feet of exhibition space, future shows are as likely to be off-site as they are on the premises.

Thus, audience members might visit the museum one week to check out an exhibit of the landscapes of the New York-based artist Patricia Johanson (scheduled to be the inaugural show for the new space). Another week, museumgoers might stop by Area 405 on Oliver Street for a grass-tasting party.

Sure, the concept of a grass-tasting gala is decidedly off-beat. It's unclear whether the Contemporary will be throwing a party that no one will attend, or whether the gallery will be packed. But, the event originated from a staff suggestion, and Spaid wanted to give it a try.

"We can't be absolutely, 100 percent certain it won't make anyone sick," she says. "Luckily, we have liability insurance."

Who: Sue Spaid

Age: 50

Residence: Baltimore

Job Title: Executive director, Contemporary Museum

Birthplace: Pittsburgh, but spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia

Education: The University of Texas at Austin, B.S. in chemical engineering, 1983; Columbia University, New York, M.A. in philosophy, 1999. Studying for a doctorate in philosophy from Philadelphia's Temple University.

Previous jobs: Worked in the bond department of a Wall Street securities firm. Founded an art gallery in Los Angeles. Lectured on philosophy at universities around the U.S.

Freelance writing: Spaid has written for publications including artUS and the Village Voice.

Personal: Single, no children.

An earlier version of this article misstated the age of the new-music group Mobtown Modern; it is nearly four years old. The article also misidentified Contemporary Museum executive director Sue Spaid's tenure at Kidder, Peabody & Co. -- she worked there for more than two years. And Spaid is currently studying for a doctorate in philosophy, not curatorial practices. The Sun regrets the error.

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