Contemporary Museum hopes to reopen

For the Contemporary Museum, which abruptly announced last month that it was suspending operations, the challenge going forward may be implicit in its name: How does it stay contemporary?

The museum began exhibiting cutting-edge art in Baltimore 23 years ago, helping to create an appetite for nontraditional works. Now it hopes to reinvent itself in an increasingly crowded cultural landscape.


"Things have changed from those days," said Rebecca Hoffberger, whose opening in 1995 of the American Visionary Art Museum on Key Highway is one such change. "There is a passionate base for contemporary art here now. It's not like contemporary art will never be seen again in Baltimore."

The Contemporary's board voted unanimously to suspend its work, cutting short an exhibition downtown, and letting go executive director Sue Spaid and four part-time staffers The board has been largely tight-lipped about its decision and timing, but vows to spend its hiatus working on a plan to return.


"We are not shutting down. The museum is ceasing its programs for the time being," said Bodil Ottesen, the board president. "How long that's going to be is everyone's guess.

She said the Contemporary had been unable to raise the money required to renovate and move into a new location, the former Craig Flinner gallery at 505 N. Charles St. in Mount Vernon, as it had planned earlier this year.

"We were trying to raise money," she said, "and we didn't get enough."

Beyond that, she declined to elaborate. Current and past members of the Contemporary board did not return calls for comment.

Being homeless is something of a return to the Contemporary's origins. Founded by George Ciscle, then a gallery owner and now director of a master's program in curatorial practice at Maryland Institute College of Art, it spent the first 10 years of its life as a so-called "museum without walls." Its exhibitions were pop-ups before pop-ups became commonplace, turning up in such unlikely venues as the back of a pickup truck and on a corner of The Block.

For some, those were the Contemporary's glory days, a time that brought nontraditional art to nontraditional venues and audiences.

"I had my trepidation from the minute they sought a physical space," Hoffberger said. "I felt what George had launched made great good sense and had enormous economics built into it and gave it flexibility to respond in many creative ways."

The Contemporary moved in 1999 to a building at 100 W. Centre St., near the Walters Art Museum, and remained there until last October. Without a permanent collection, the museum's staff was able to set up shop in temporary offices while seeking to move into a new exhibit space.


Alex Ebstein, an artist and gallery owner, is among those who think the Contemporary doesn't necessarily need a home base.

"I do think it can work without a space," said Ebstein, who with Seth Adelsberger owns Nudashank gallery on West Franklin Street. "I know when there were strong shows, people turned out in droves.

"But it can be hard when the space changes, and people don't know where to go."

She and Adelsberger were among the local gallery owners who recommended artists for the Contemporary's Baltimore Liste exhibits, the last one of which prematurely ended when the museum suspended operations. They hope the museum re-emerges with a continued commitment to working with the community, and to serving as a place where local artists can view touring shows as well as connect with potential collectors.

"It gives a next step for local artists to aspire to outside of the gallery circuit," Adelsberger said. "For an artist in midcareer, it's 'How do you reach people who might collect art?'"

As with many smaller arts institutions — the Contemporary had an annual budget of about $400,000 — the museum has had its ups and downs over the years. In a parallel to today's woes, it announced in August 2003 that it would suspend its exhibitions, citing financial problems and a need to reinvent itself. The board president at the time, Michael Salcman, paraphrased Mark Twain to note that reports of the museum's demise were greatly exaggerated.


And indeed, the Contemporary put on another exhibit several months later, hired a new director the following year and got back on its feet financially.

Meanwhile, other groups were presenting contemporary art in Baltimore as well. Maryland Art Place, which predated the Contemporary by about seven years, produced shows in various spaces before settling into its West Saratoga and Power Plant Live! locations.

Baltimore has "a big ecosystem" of contemporary art, including MICA, the Creative Alliance and the Station North arts district, said Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Bolger herself, some say, is among those who have boosted the profile of current art here. After arriving in 1998, she made strengthening the museum's contemporary holdings among her priorities, something that she views as entirely in the spirit of the Cone sisters, who collected works by Matisse, Picasso and other modern masters during their lifetimes, eventually donating them to the BMA.

This fall, the BMA will open a new contemporary wing, featuring recent acquisitions, a site-specific installation and a "black box" gallery for film, video and digital works.

But Bolger believes that all the different art venues support, rather than compete with, one another.


"I'm definitely of the more-is-more school," she said. "I'm delighted to say we have a lot of company."

Kristen Hileman thinks the Contemporary's strength is the ability to capitalize on new art forms, such as its exhibition of cellphone art.

"I think the Contemporary built this really unique niche as a noncollecting institution," said Hileman, the BMA's contemporary art curator. "It allowed them to be nimble about exhibitions … and up-to-the-minute on trends.

Amy Cavanaugh Royce, Maryland Art Place's executive director, noted that the economy has made it "tough out there" for everyone, but said the Contemporary has a track record of working without a permanent space. "I'm sure that can be challenging, but it could also be exciting."

Jeannie Howe, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, agreed, saying that people have become more comfortable looking at art in different, and even virtual, ways.

"It seems smart to me that they'll take a pause and think about where their future is," she said. "Their mission was being without walls, they would move around the city. It is a more challenging way to develop a presence, people think about organizations as being about a place.


"But it's a new world for the arts now. That could be very viable now. You look at pop-up stores and pop-up restaurants — who ever thought those would work?"