BMA's West Wing to undergo a year of renovation

There are only two weeks left to bid adieu to Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning and all those other modernists whose brilliant, often challenging works fill the Baltimore Museum of Art's West Wing.

Only two weeks left to stand underneath "Flower Observatory," Olafur Eliasson's massive steel sculpture, and be awed one more time by the magical starscape revealed inside.

The 16-year-old West Wing, where a substantial portion of the BMA's valuable contemporary art collection is showcased, is about to undergo an extensive yearlong makeover. It's the first part of a three-year, $24 million capital renovation project, with public and private support, leading up to the 2014 centennial of the museum's founding.

Jan. 16 is the last day the public will have access to the contemporary wing. Soon after, museum staffers and specially hired art-handlers will begin the process of removing the art that now fills the wing's nearly 36,000 square feet — 16 gallery rooms in all.

"To take everything out and start from scratch is pretty unique," said Kristen Hileman, the BMA's curator of contemporary art. "It's going to take three months to take everything down and the same amount of time to put it back up."

Except for heavy sculptures that can't easily be moved (temporary protective structures will be erected around them), the art will go into storage and won't be seen again until the reopening of the West Wing, slated for the spring of 2012.

"It's going to be very difficult without the contemporary collection for this period of time," BMA director Doreen Bolger said. "These are such important holdings. I'm sure everyone has their favorites."

Bolger's favorites include a Felix Gonzalez-Torres' playful, plastic-bead curtain from 1995. Like the one adorning the entranceway to Rhoda's apartment on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," this curtain separating two gallery rooms is meant to be pushed through, defying the usual don't-touch restriction of a museum.

When the West Wing is back in business, there will be even more of those beads to reflect light and make gentle rustling noises when touched — the curtain will be increased substantially in width and height to fill out an even larger doorway. That's only one of the new experiences in store for museum-goers come 2012.

"We're repainting the walls," Hileman said. "We're getting rid of the gray and going with a more neutral white. It may be a shock to some people, since it's been gray since it opened."

The current hue complements some of the collection nicely, such as Mel Bochner's "Optic Chiasma," an oil on canvas filled with gray cube-shapes floating on a grayish canvas.

But the new white background is likely to make works pop out more vividly, including Grace Hartigan's "August Harvest," an abstract expressionist piece in bold shades of brown, orange, purple, red and aqua. Frank Stella's black-on-black "Cube Onyx" and the big, vibrant-colored works by Gilbert and George, Andy Warhol and Clyfford Still will surely stand out more strikingly, too, against a white wall.

Another new factor that will affect the viewing experience is lighting. The New York-based Renfro Design Group, which worked on the Morgan Library and Museum in New York and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, is devising the new lighting for the BMA's West Wing.

"The fluorescent lights we have now can't be dimmed," Hileman said. "They're either on or they're off; that's it. We're looking at a track system that will offer more flexibility."

One benefit from such flexibility will be lighting that is subdued enough to display safely works on paper from the BMA's extensive contemporary collection. They'll have their own gallery on the top floor of the West Wing after the renovation. "People will see more photography, prints and drawings from our collection than ever before," Bolger said.

Even the current skylights in the wing are being rethought.

"We're working with a designer to get more even light from them," Hileman said. "Now, there are pretty dramatic changes depending on the time of day or the time of year."

The stairwell in the rotunda connecting the floors of the West Wing will also see lighting changes. "As it is now, we need a brave person to swing out over the rotunda on a bosun's chair to change the lights," Hileman said.

There will be more to see in that area once the wing reopens; artists will be commissioned to create works specifically for the rotunda space.

Expect to find new flooring in the West Wing next year, too (a final decision on the color hasn't been made). Also in the plans is a "black box" gallery — "Ideally, it will be more of a theater place," Hileman said — where video and digital artworks will be shown.

"All of these things will make the West Wing a more beautiful place," Bolger said. "With art, a lot of how people perceive it has to do with the setting."

One especially important component of the renovation won't be discernible from inside the wing.

"The building needs a new roof," Hileman said. "It's a flat roof, and it's nearing the 20-year-mark."

Marshall Craft Associates, a Baltimore-based architectural firm that has replaced eight of the BMA's 10 roofs, will handle this one, too.

"The new roof is going to keep the museum secure and the art safe for the next generation," Bolger said. "A lot of the work being done on the wing involves good-stewardship things that museums always have to do."

Although one of its cornerstone assets is heading into temporary storage, the museum won't be going all antiquarian for the next year.

"The BMA will still be a force in contemporary art," Bolger said.

She pointed to "Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960," an exhibition that opens Feb. 20 featuring 200-plus images by Diane Arbus, William Eggleston and others from the museum's collection.

The annual Sondheim and Baker Award juried shows will still be displayed at the BMA. The celebrated Cone Collection of early 20th-century art is permanent, of course.

And, for another week, the museum still has the large touring show, "Andy Warhol: The Last Decade," on display. As for the BMA's own Warhols, including his iconic treatments of Brillo boxes and Campbell's Soup cans, they'll soon be out of sight, along with a richly diverse sampling of the visual creativity of our time.

"It's hard to say goodbye to anything," Hileman said. "But I'm hoping that when the West Wing reopens, people will see the art with fresh eyes."

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