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"Imagining Home" exhibit opens Sunday at Baltimore Museum of Art

The exhibit inaugurates the museum's new education center, completing the BMA's $28 million, multi-year restoration

They're enough to break your heart, the three black-and-white photographs taken of the residents of a San Francisco hotel for transients in 1979 and 1980.

Artist Jim Goldberg allowed the people he photographed to add their own signed comments in the series he titled "Rich and Poor."

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"My family is O.K.," a boy named Lonnie writes in one snapshot.

He's leaning against a bureau in the seedy hotel room, arms crossed. His body is inclined away from his mother and two brothers, who are nestled together in a group. It's immediately apparent that Lonnie perceives himself as an outsider.

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"I think I'm stupid," he writes. "I always do something wrong."

Goldberg juxtaposed his photos of hotel residents with shots of a museum's trustees with their spouses and children. There's a photo of one such prosperous family that clearly aspires to stay that way. "We don't want to be part of the masses," Jo Anne Roberts writes. "We want to live with style!"

Those two images are a concise summary of what the Baltimore Museum of Art hopes to accomplish in "Imagining Home," its new exhibit that opens Sunday. The show will run for an unprecedented three years and will tackle aspects of what living spaces signify, from interior design to such hot-button issues as homelessness and immigration.

It invites museumgoers to consider what values are being communicated by the places where we live. "Imagining Home" even contains four of the museum's much-loved miniature rooms that showcase such 19th-century interiors as the entrance hall to a Southern plantation, a New England dining room, a Shaker home and a New Orleans parlor.

"You have to ask yourself," said Gamynne Guillotte, who organized the exhibit with staff member Oliver Shell, "just what and who is being idealized here."

"Imagining Home" inaugurates the museum's interactive $4.5 million Patricia and Mark Joseph Education Center, which is designed to help visitors interact with the works of art in more intimate and imaginative ways. The center is named for the longtime donors who last week promised $3 million to the museum — the third-largest gift in the institution's history.

The opening of the Joseph Center brings to a close the museum's $28 million renovation project that began in 2010 and included the makeover of the Contemporary Wing, the reconfiguration of the American Wing and the reopening of the historic 1929 entrance.

The occasion is being marked with a daylong party Sunday. Visitors can screen home movies, attend a spoon-playing workshop and explore inflatable architecture.

But chances are they'll want to spend time in "Imagining Home." The exhibit contains about 30 works drawn from the museum's collection and spanning 26 centuries. The oldest object is a ceramic Italian krater, or vessel, dating from around 440 B.C. The most recent is a photograph of a rowhouse taken in 2011 by the Baltimore artist Ben Marcin.

About a third of the artworks are made of paper, which is light-sensitive. As a result, they'll be changed every six months. Over three years, visitors can experience 93 artworks.

The show is divided into three categories: facades and thresholds, which explores the tension between public and private places; domestic interiors, which look at the home as a psychological space; and arrivals and departures, which deals with social issues arising from places of residence.

An example of the latter is artist Susan Harbage Page's 2011 photograph "Nest (Hiding Place), Laredo, Texas" that was taken at the Mexican border. At first glance, a tangle of golden brown hay or grass swirls around a burrow. The image is quite beautiful, and the viewer draws closer, curious whether the hole is being inhabited by a rabbit, prairie dog or some other creature.

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In reality, the den is human-sized, a resting place for an illegal immigrant.

"The artist walks up and down the border taking pictures, but she never photographs people," says Shell, the museum's assistant curator of European painting and sculpture. "Instead, she photographs the objects they leave behind, like toothbrushes and shoes and lipstick."

The show is relatively compact. Thirty artworks might not seem like a lot, and they're displayed in an exhibition gallery about the size of a typical American house. But "Imagining Home" feels much larger than it actually is.

That's because the art exerts a visceral pull — though sometimes what's being prodded is the viewer's funny bone. The exhibit includes a white shower curtain that's been covered with text inked in black by writer Dave Eggers.

"I like to see you lather," the curtain opines, somewhat suggestively. "I do not like to hear you sing."

Talk about getting the naked truth.

There's also a bamboo cutting board by the artist Starlee Kine that's intended to be used only for chopping onions while recovering from a romance gone sour. Words have been burned into the board. "This onion made me cry," it reads in part, "and so naturally it made me think of you."

As Kine has planned it, as heartbroken onion-cutters heal emotionally, their tears will wash away the text — and the accompanying bad memories.

There's even a bit of Baltimore in the exhibit, in the form of Marcin's "Last House Standing" series. The artist photographs the last rowhouses remaining on individual blocks in cities up and down the East Coast. The buildings have a forlorn air, because the homes to which they once were connected have been torn down.

"There's something very wistful and elegiac about these homes," said Guillotte, the museum's director of interpretation and engagement, as she stood before a photo of a three-story red brick structure in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.

"Rowhouses are social creatures, and they're supposed to have their fellows next to them," she said. "But they're all still inhabited, so there's this element of defiance in the brave facade that they present to the street."

A speaker mounted in the ceiling broadcasts sounds recorded on that block, from bird songs to passing cars, conveying the sense of ongoing life. (Five other artworks in the exhibit also have their own soundscapes, which were recorded in Afghanistan, Ghana, Algeria and Italy.)

"Imagining Home" also feels capacious because the show offers so many interactive components.

Museum patrons can listen to recorded interviews with 11 families who lived for a month with a reproductions of four artworks on view, including Goldberg's photos and Eggers' shower curtain.

Visitors can type words on an iPad explaining what home means to them, and moments later see their words projected onto the museum floor — along with the thoughts of previous visitors.

They can anonymously fill out a postcard answering questions about, for instance, the roles they play in their own homes and then place the card in a mailbox to be sent to a randomly selected stranger. If visitors also fill out a sticker with their names and addresses, they'll receive their own postcard from another anonymous guest they've never met.

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Kids and grown-ups can visit the Joseph Center's classroom space and try their hand at making their own creations, which will range from paper-folding to welding.

Finally, they can play a grown-up version of "house" with the Baltimore artist Marian April Glebes, who will be in residence for the year in an adjoining gallery called "The Commons." The artist worked with the nonprofit recycling organization The Loading Dock to construct a large white "shed" that resembles a miniature kitchen, down to the glass canisters on the shelves filled with rice and beans.

The shed isn't electrified so it's all make-believe. But visitors will be able to sweep the floor with a white broom, have a "tea party" using the white ceramic tea set and "knit" a scarf with the skeins of white yarn in a wire basket on the shelf.

"We've been wanting to provide more imaginative encounters between our audience and our collection," says Jay Fisher, the museum's deputy director of curatorial affairs. "We've been wanting to provide experiences that build a sense of community. The Joseph Center represents the culmination of our efforts to make the museum a more accessible and welcoming place."

If you go

"Imagining Home" opens today with a celebration from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and runs through Aug. 1, 2018, at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.

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