Eubie Blake museum begins rise from ashes


Norman E. Ross envisions a future when the Eubie Blak National Museum and Cultural Center occupies a prominent corner of the Brokerage marketplace center. The museum would have its own cafe, featuring live performances by jazz and classical performers. And it would have the most extensive standing exhibit on jazz performers this side of New Orleans.

Mr. Ross, the founder and curator of the 15-year-old institution, envisions a place that would be a cultural center in the purest sense of the word -- showcasing performing arts, as well as the visual. He sees it as the anchor of a revitalized district, attracting tourists as well as residents to the indoor mall located within walking distance of the Inner Harbor.

He sees . . .

"So the fire didn't really hurt you?" I put in quickly.

Mr. Ross stops and blinks at me a couple of times, as though I had summoned him back from the glorious future of the Eubie Blake Museum.

"The fire hurt us very, very much," answers Mr. Ross. "The fire was a major setback. It put us back to square one. I'm in the position of having to rebuild the museum from the ground up, almost as if I were starting from scratch, almost as if I were homeless."

Two weeks ago, an electrical malfunction caused an early morning fire at the museum in the 400 block of North Charles Street. The fire caused about $700,000 damage to the building and its contents, according to insurance estimates. Art and exhibits that were not damaged are stored at various sites around the city. The museum was all but shut down.

But last week the museum rose from the ashes. Using temporary space donated by the operators of the Brokerage, it opened an exhibition of watercolor portraits by Winold Reiss, a white artist who set out to document the faces of ethnicity in the late 1920s.

The exhibition features several prominent members of the "Harlem Renaissance," including James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. It also features portraits of everyday people: "Two Public School Teachers," "A Black Prophet," "Nurse Brisbane." Mr. Reiss also painted a number of studies of American Indians and these portraits give the exhibition a multicultural tone.

"I don't emphasize blackness, I emphasize art for art's sake, with the understanding that we are black and when the occasion arises we will push our ethnicity," says Mr. Ross. "White artists, Asian artists, artists of any ethnicity are very welcome here."

For instance, before the fire the Hispanic community had asked to provide an exhibit featuring Hispanic artists in commemoration of national Hispanic month in September. Mr. Ross says he hopes they are still interested, though he has not heard from them.

Meanwhile, he is able to dream again about the future.

The museum, scheduled to become independent of the city's Urban Services Agency beginning July 1, has established an advisory board and is exploring fund-raising opportunities. Several local artists have offered to help stage one mammoth show on behalf of the museum, and Mr. Ross hopes to make that happen.

In mid-July, the museum will host "From Field to Factory," a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., that chronicles the black migration from South to North.

Planning for the renovation of a permanent home in the Brokerage is scheduled to begin soon. The Eubie Blake Museum hopes it will be completed by the end of 1994.

The fire interrupted a productive season for the museum. It had presented collaborative exhibits with Center Stage, the Jewish Historical Society and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

"When I helped found this museum [in 1978] I wanted to get black people totally involved in the artistic life of this city because, at that time, they were not," says Mr. Ross.

"When we started," he says, "there was no place where black artists could exhibit their works. Now that has changed tremendously, thanks, in large part, to what we were able to do. Very few people came through the arts here who were not touched in some way by our cultural arts program."

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