At 100, the Baltimore Museum of Art reinvents itself for a younger generation

The Baltimore Museum of Art is going back to its future.

As the museum celebrates its 100th anniversary this weekend, it is committed to reinventing itself for a younger generation of edgy, curious, energetic museum-goers while remaining faithful to the mission that made it an important part of civic life to begin with.


The reopening of the 1929 entrance designed by architect John Russell Pope, with its 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.

That means coming up with a new way to present of its American art collection and creating spaces that appeal to contemporary forms of art, such as videos and film. It means mounting exhibits that tackle social issues such as homelessness and immigration and opening up its gallery space to such dynamic young local artists as Seth Adelsberger (co-founder of the former Nudashank Gallery) and the street artist known as Gaia.


It also means dedicating one space to presenting big ideas in art in a quirky and engaging manner, and opening another aimed at fostering creative self-expression.

"From the very beginning," BMA Director Doreen 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 created a virtual tour of the sisters' adjoining apartments 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 reopening the historic entrance with its limestone steps. (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 melds 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 Ryan Donahue as 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.

The Party of the Century at the museum was pitched toward a younger crowd, with music by the experimental electronic music duo Matmos, performance art by Labbodies Performance Laboratory and effects from Wham City Lights, which converted portable electronic devices into a crowd-synced light show.

Baltimoreans Abigail and Christian Hurst love the BMA, especially the Contemporary Wing and the outdoor Sculpture Garden. When they were looking around for a grand setting in which to celebrate Christian's 32nd birthday, they got gussied up and went dancing at the BMA.

"It's a beautiful place," Abigail Hurst, 26, said. "We always bring out of town guests here. We come here every few months, but if there was better public transportation to the museum, we'd come even more often."

Anagnos thinks that midsize 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 museum's three relatively new exhibition spaces that showcase the work of the best living local and national artists — including Gaia and Adelsberger. The latter has said that having a solo show in an institution as prestigious as the BMA over the summer already has helped his career.

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.

"One of the things I like about the BMA is how active they are at engaging the contemporary art community in Baltimore," said party attendee Maggie Villegas, 29, a theater artist who is producing director of the EMP Collective.

"I was thrilled to see Labbodies here," she said. "A few years ago, the museum hired Single Carrot Theatre to do a performance about Andy Warhol. It's exciting to find out about that kind of programming at the BMA."

The Big Table has been attracting a crowd since it opened in 2012, because it poses the kinds of thought-provoking issues that pique the inquisitive minds of millennials in a visually striking manner.

Each year, the Table tackles a different topic in the art world. For 2014, the curators are using the topic of "extra-ordinary objects" to explore how contemporary painters and sculptors incorporate easily overlooked, everyday things into their artwork.


For instance, a swing that normally would be found on a playground supporting a kid's rump instead is enclosed in a box. Written on the case is this question: "Do you think about a familiar object differently when you see it displayed in an unfamiliar context?"

The adjoining case is filled from top to bottom with bottle caps from orange soda and asks: "Does the significance of an everyday object change when it is repeated?"

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.

As he 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."

The museum's $28 million renovation project will wrap up in the fall of 2015 with the opening of the Center for Learning & Creativity, which 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.


"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."

If you go

The Baltimore Museum of Art will celebrate its 100th anniversary with a public party featuring a ceremonial step-scrubbing and birthday cake from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at 31st and Charles streets. Free. Call 443-573-1700 or go to