It started as the most improbable of ideas:
To think someone could take the grimy old Greyhound service terminal at Park Avenue and Centre Street -- not the bus station itself but the garage next door, vacant since 1976 -- and transform it for even a short time into a Museum for Contemporary Arts was clearly carrying the idea of adaptive reuse further than it has been carried before, even in Baltimore.
Yes, thousands flocked to see the meticulous conversion of the Thomas-Jencks-Gladding mansion on Mount Vernon Place to an Asian Arts museum for the Walters Arts Gallery. But to imagine that people would feel comfortable standing in the non-air conditioned service bays of the old bus garage and be able to concentrate on the art inside was assuming local museumgoers have greater fortitude than they've shown heretofore.
Yet against all odds, this most unlikely of buildings has proven to be such a refreshing exhibit space and such a wonderful addition to the Mount Vernon neighborhood since it opened on a temporary basis in late May that the question simply must be asked: Has Baltimore's fledgling Museum for Contemporary Arts finally found a permanent home? Judging by this installation, an abandoned bus garage could be just the ticket for this upstart museum-with-moxie.
To be fair, the photography exhibit inside the former garage, Photo Manifesto: Contemporary Photography in the U.S.S.R.," was never supposed to last more than five weeks, and no one has come out and suggested that the building be used as a museum beyond that. The primary reason it was selected, according to museum director George Ciscle, is that it was appropriate for this specific show.
That decision reflects the mission of the two-year-old museum, which was formed to promote a better understanding of evolving contemporary art by presenting exhibits, performances, films and lectures that other local institutions might not. Its directors seek to provide a forum about contemporary art by going into the community and making it accessible to a diverse audience in unconventional ways. They believe that effective exhibitions depend as much on the choice of a site and method of installation as the artworks displayed.
Mr. Ciscle said that when the museum was established he
sought a permanent home for it, preferably near the Inner Harbor. But when he met with city officials to discuss the possibility of acquiring city property, he said, they encouraged him to mount temporary shows in various settings to demonstrate what he had in mind and to build support. Exhibits such as the one in the garage and one last December in the Famous Ballroom on Charles Street, he said, have been mounted in response to that suggestion, not with the idea of trying out these spaces as permanent homes.
The 25,000-square-foot bus garage happened to be availabl because it is part of a development parcel. Acquired by the city after Greyhound moved out in the mid-1980s, the land was awarded several years ago to a development partnership made up of Bacon and Co. and Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse. Since last fall they have been converting the bus station to offices for the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments, which will move in later this month. But they still had no definite plans for the garage when they showed it to Mr. Ciscle earlier this year. He said he knew as soon as he walked in the door that it was perfect for the photography exhibit. With support from the developers and the Schmoke administration, he arranged to
lease it on a temporary basis, free of charge.
Built in 1941 as a companion to the art moderne bus station, the garage hasn't been changed much inside or out to accommodate the museum. One enters on the west side, where the package handling area used to be, and proceeds to the grease pit where buses were repaired. Leaving the shell essentially untouched, the museum staff installed a series of metal partitions to mount the photographs and guide visitors through the building. They also set up a gift shop and reading area and displayed artifacts found inside the building, such as a cannon-sized fire extinguisher.
As a result, a visit to this museum is somewhat like looking at art inside a gas station service bay, only bigger. One can still see the diagonal floor stripes denoting the parking areas and orange metal bumper guards dented by the buses. But there is something so familiar and friendly about this gasoline alley aesthetic that it tends to put one at ease the way a more pristine environment, such as that of the Walters' Hackerman House, never would. The high ceilings, intricate roof trusses and abundance of diffused natural light coming through the skylights make for an ideal exhibition space, and the great continuous bays lend themselves to a variety of spatial configurations. The space is also curiously timeless -- very much 1940s wartime airplane hangar, with a raw, almost ominous edge to it, and yet somehow very 1990s Baltimore, too, a little tawdry but rich in atmosphere and full of promise.
The exhibit space has been enhanced by design touches that play off the industrial aesthetic without detracting from the building's character. Architect Steve Ziger of Ziger Hoopes and Snead (the firm that used found space at Center Stage to create the flexible new Head Theater), designed the partitions out of XTC corrugated aluminum acoustic panels, and they work wonderfully when juxtaposed against the roof trusses. Interior designer Hilary Pierce of Nick Lambros Associates fashioned bookshelves, clothing racks and a collection box out of scaffolding and other materials that convey the sense of construction in progress -- perfect for this temporary installation. Thanks to donations from a variety of sources, including Struever Bros., Whiting Turner Contracting Co., Alpro Acoustics and Judkins Associates, Mr. Ciscle and crew were able to mount the exhibit for the astounding total of $1,500.
For another exhibit, would the garage work as well? Would it 1/8 hold up to repeated visits? Is it cost effective to renovate and maintain year-round? Those are questions for museum staffers to ponder long after they dismantle the show later this month. But there are a number of reasons why it ought to be considered as a permanent home.
First, it is a creative use for a long-vacant building, and it adds life to an area that needs it. When the state's light rail line opens next year, it would help bridge the no-man's land along Centre Street between Howard Street and Charles Street, the city's cultural corridor. It would mean a steady stream of people in the area and more eyes on the street.
Second, it's another cultural amenity for Mount Vernon. The garage is on the same block as the Maryland Historical Society, two blocks west of the Walters, three blocks north of Maryland Art Place and two blocks south of the School for the Arts. Basing the museum there would demonstrate the diversity of the local art scene while adding to the critical mass of arts-oriented activities in the area.
Third, it's a perfect complement to the 1941 bus station, which has been lovingly restored. Working with Gould Architects, Struever Bros. and Bacon have done a remarkable job of remodeling the 50-year-old terminal for office use without sacrificing key details, such as the sleek blue Greyhound emblem engraved in the sidewalk near the building's entrance. The garage, designed as a companion to the station, extends its streamlined look and enlarges its presence as a visual anchor for the neighborhood. To tear it down now could leave the station as more a forlorn remnant of the past than the well-integrated city landmark it is today.
Fourth, it suits the museum's needs very well. What it may lack in creature comforts, it makes up in location, flexibility, and the superb quality of light that comes in. Directors have said they would like eventually to have about 40,000 square feet of permanent space, including exhibition areas, a performance space, library, book shop, cafe and artists' studios. The garage may not have all of that now, but there is room on the block to build it. For starters at least, the museum may be able to share facilities with its neighbors, such as the Historical Society's auditorium or the Walters' new cafe. What better way to knit it into the community?
Asked about the possibility of using the garage as a permanent exhibit space, Mr. Ciscle said he won't really have a chance to evaluate it until the photography exhibit comes down and he can discuss the idea with city officials, the developers and his own board and staff. But he admits he is intrigued with the idea of having a permanent base from which the museum could also mount roving exhibits, and very satisfied with the current show.
Developers William Struever and Elinor Bacon, meanwhile, say they are talking to other prospective users for the garage property, some of whom would like to recycle the existing building and some of whom would like to build something in its place. The city has a say, too. All of which makes the building an ideal test project for the 20-year strategic plan that the Schmoke administration unveiled last week.
If nothing else, the five-week show has demonstrated the attractiveness of the space and the potential it may hold for a permanent user, whether it's a museum or something else. It was an unconventional exhibit in an unlikely place, and that is largely why it was so effective. But it's that kind of spontaneity and adaptability that just may make the Greyhound garage an ideal permanent home for the museum as well.