Good shows, bad economic climate


The announcement earlier this month that the G. H. Dalsheimer Gallery would close in April was the latest event in a turbulent year for art locally and nationally. If the 1980s were a period of expansion and prosperity in the art world, the experiences of 1990 do not bode as well for the millennium's final decade.

To be sure, there was expansion and there were plans for expansion. The opening of the C. Grimaldis Gallery Sculpture Space, and exhibits of work there by internationally known artists Jene Highstein and Ulrich Ruckriem, were highlights of the year. And we added another alternative space with the opening of Charles Street's BAUhouse.

George Ciscle, who closed his own gallery last year, announced plans for a Museum for Contemporary Arts similar to such institutions in Philadelphia, Boston and elsewhere; by year's end, however, he said that because of the generally rocky economic situation he would concentrate next year on mounting several shows at appropriate locations rather than commit the museum to the expenses of a permanent home.

And the Baltimore Museum of Art made a proposal to take over the Power Plant at the Inner Harbor to house part of its permanent collection plus temporary exhibits; if that were to happen, the museum would not build a planned wing for 20th century art at its Art Museum Drive site.

If much of the above could be looked on as good news, the planned closing of Dalsheimer and the closing of the Museum of Art's sales and rental gallery last June were blows to the Baltimore art scene. Baltimore has a lot of art galleries, but relatively few that show challenging, compelling contemporary art, and the loss of two of those is a serious matter. Other local commercial and non-profit galleries, including Grimaldis and School 33, have scaled back the number of shows they present or their hours.

Although Van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" and Renoir's "Au Moulin de la Galette" brought record prices, $82.5 million and $78.1 million respectively, in May, by fall the art market had slumped and many works went unsold at the major New York sales. While that can be seen partly as a result of the economic downturn, it also reflected to some degree a prudent reaction to skyrocketing prices.

Happily, a Cincinnati jury acquitted that city's Contemporary Arts Center and its director, Dennis Barrie, of pandering obscenity by showing the exhibit "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment," which contained photographs of homoerotic acts and of children with their genitals exposed. Many in the art world spoke out in support of showing the exhibit, and in the end the jury accepted the testimony of expert witnesses presented by the defense who said that the images in question were art.

The attack on the National Endowment for the Arts, led by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and others in Congress who objected to government funding of art they considered obscene, resulted in the agency's reauthorization for only three years instead of five. Congress also directed that state and regional arts agencies receive 30 percent instead of 20 percent of NEA funds in fiscal 1991, thus forcing the agency to cut $13 million from grants to individuals and arts organizations.

The best news of the year lay in the continuing flow of memorable shows, here and elsewhere. In the spring, the Walters Art Gallery presented "Leaves From the Bodhi Tree," an assemblage of great art from Pala (eighth to 12th century) India and the places it influenced. After some uncertainty following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August, the Walters earlier this month opened "Islamic Art and Patronage: Selections From Kuwait" (through Feb. 17), a handsomely mounted exhibit of refined luxury covering 1,000 years of Islamic art.

The Baltimore Museum this fall presented "Joel Shapiro: Tracing the Figure," an important show of the works of this contemporary sculptor who has made a humanism out of minimalism. Earlier at the BMA, the superb presentation of "The Art of Thomas Rowlandson" revealed the Rowlandson of high art. The small "BMA Collects: Surrealist Drawings" was also an instructive, rewarding show.

Other local highlights included "The Green House," a piece by photographer/installationist Sandy Skoglund that occupied the entire main gallery space at Dalsheimer; the current show of new work by West Coast conceptualist John Baldessari at Grimaldis (through Jan. 12) and three exhibits of the works of Grace Hartigan, at Grimaldis, the BMA and the Maryland Institute.

There were disappointments. Compared with other years, this year's Artscape was shrunken, hidden, overcautious and depressing. The Walters' "Illuminations: Images of Landscape From France, 1855-1885" was a confusing, unsuccessful attempt to show the beginnings of the modern movement. Much of the BMA's current "Lalique" (through Jan. 15) is so commercial that the viewer may wonder whether he's in a museum or a department store.

Elsewhere, the year was notable for shows at the National Gallery in Washington: the Annenberg and Buhrle collections of impressionist and postimpressionist art, and this fall's grand Titian (through Jan. 27) and Van Dyck (through Feb. 27) exhibits. "Matisse in Morocco," also at the National Gallery, illuminated a highly important point in the artist's career, as did the gallery of Matisses that ended "From Poussin to Matisse: The Russian Taste for French Painting" at New York's Metropolitan.

At Washington's National Museum of American Art, "Albert Pinkham Ryder" was an overdue and thorough look at an influential American artist once revered but more recently neglected. The current "Mexico: Spendors of Thirty Centuries" at the Metropolitan (through Jan. 13) is a mammoth look at an art we know too little about.

Finally, 1990 must end on a note of uncertainty. For well over a year the Maryland Institute, College of Art has been pondering the fate of the great Lucas collection of 19th century art, some 20,000 works owned by the Institute but virtually all on loan to the BMA since 1933 and an integral part of its holdings. Sale of the collection out of the city would represent the greatest loss in the history of the fine arts in Baltimore.

The city awaits a decision encouraged by the thought that surely no responsible institution would inflict such a colossal loss on the community in which it resides.

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