When the Baltimore Museum of Art opens its spirited New Wing for Modern Art this month, visitors will discover a place that challenges them to understand some of the most provocative art of our era.
They will encounter paintings with a political agenda and works that touch their most personal memories. They will confront the wonder, rage, irony, confusion, and, yes, the beauty of life during the late 20th century. And they will contemplate what it means to be human.
The $10 million addition, which opens Oct. 16, will gradually transform Baltimore's largest fine arts museum.
It triples the space for the museum's collection of post-World War II art, making room for dozens of works -- including newly acquired paintings by Andy Warhol -- never seen before in Baltimore.
It will give new prominence to the museum's distinguished collections of American decorative arts, African art, and prints, drawings and photographs by allowing them to expand into areas previously devoted to offices and modern art.
And it may encourage more collectors and artists to loan or donate works for display in what is widely perceived as a gracious new center for contemporary art.
"I think the Baltimore Museum of Art has managed to create one ofthe country's most important centers for 20th-century art," says Evan Maurer, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
For many local arts supporters, the opening of the New Wing is generating a Camden Yards level of excitement.
"It will give form and focus to the most difficult and misunderstood art genre," says Sue Hess, president of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, the statewide arts advocacy group.
"Most important is what it will do to educate the community in contemporary art," says Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. "This region is still parochial as far as the art most people come into contact with. . . . This will provide a terrific resource."
The addition is expected to significantly boost attendance at the 80-year-old museum, which last year attracted 322,000 visitors. (They'll have an easier time finding the building now that the museum has finally put its name on its east wing. And another new sign identifies the visitors entrance.)
Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery, welcomes the BMA's New Wing as "another place for people to enjoy art." The Walters, where attendance roughly doubled after recent renovations and expansion, also stands to benefit from the excitement generated by the New Wing.
"There are a whole lot of people out there yet to be engaged in the art world," Mr. Vikan says. "The better the Baltimore Museum does in bringing in attendance, the better we do."
The BMA's new building, designed by Bower Lewis Thrower/Architects of Philadelphia, provides 16 galleries that are spacious yet retain a sense of intimacy through their thoughtful groupings of art. The walls are a warm gray, the floors are white ash. An innovative fluorescent lighting system protects paintings from any potentially damaging exposure to natural light.
Some of the dimensions are dramatic: The central gallery, which holds the Warhols, measures 50 feet by 50 feet. Many of the ceilings are 25 feet high. In the older buildings, ceiling heights tend to range from 12 to 17 feet.
Richard Oldenburg, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, says he is "enormously envious" of the BMA's expansion.
"Any museum that is actively collecting contemporary art faces the problem of having enough space," he says. "We show our contemporary collection in three or four re-installations every year because we don't have the space to have it permanently on view."
Like proud parents
Museum Director Arnold Lehman and Brenda Richardson, curator of Modern Painting and Sculpture, are presiding over preliminary tours like proud parents of the bride. Obviously thrilled, they are also apprehensive, exhausted, grateful and a bit choked up.
Dr. Lehman sounds anxious to play down the impact.
"We're not building the world's biggest new wing," he cautions. "We're not the largest museum in the United States, and we're certainly not the largest collection of contemporary art. What we have been able to do is to take a group of modest initiatives and put them all together into what I hope will be a new beginning for the museum."
More than half of the $10 million project was paid for by the state and city, the rest was raised privately. Major donors included the Kresge Foundation, Hazel Ann Fox, Constance R. Caplan, the Louis & Henrietta Blaustein Foundation and Henry & Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg Foundation, and Alex. Brown & Sons.
The addition should add about $500,000 a year to the museum's $9 million general operating costs, Dr. Lehman says.
It seems a small price to pay for such a wide-ranging transformation. The new construction is allowing the rest of the museum to be reconfigured and reorganized.
Two new galleries now provide 2,000 square feet for exhibitions of the museum's collection of prints, drawings and photographs.
The museum's holdings in American decorative arts, enhanced by a 1992 gift of nearly 200 objects from Baltimorean Dorothy McIlvain Scott, will expand into galleries that once held modern art.
African art will command an entire gallery.
There is also an updated look to the galleries that house the museum's superb collections of early 20th century art. Internationally known for its Cone Collection -- most significantly, its works of Matisse and Picasso -- the museum has organized its earlier modern art so that it unfolds directly into the New Wing. The smaller-scale galleries with the van Goghs and Cezannes lead gradually, and more coherently, into the soaring spaces with the Warhols and Rauschenbergs.
And visitors will better understand that the development of the ,, museum's modern art focus -- abstraction -- is based upon the past gifts, and tastes, of such major Baltimore collectors of early 20th-century art as the Cone Sisters, Saidie A. May and Edward Joseph Gallegher III.
"We tried to analyze the museum's strengths, and one was in basic geometric abstraction," Ms. Richardson says. "We focused artists who emerged in the late '60s and early '70s, on artists really inspired by abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. "We had a strong base, here so we concentrated on developing it so that we could tell a story."
Other museum directors applaud this selective approach.
"Arnold and Brenda have developed one of the country's most thoughtful collections of late 20th century art," says Mary Gardner Neill, director of the Seattle Art Museum. "Some museums and curators have wildly picked whatever came their way, but the Baltimore Museum's holdings and exhibitions have been tailored to those aspects of late 20th-century art Arnold and Brenda believe are the most important."
But not necessarily the most accessible.
Visitors will not find figurative paintings by such popular giants as Andrew Wyeth. Instead, the New Wing will introduce them to works by such artists as Susan Rothenberg, Donald Judd, JTC Ellsworth Kelly, Dan Flavin, Roni Horn, Bruce Nauman, Rafael Ferrer and Baltimore's own Grace Hartigan -- heavy-hitting names in the art world that Ms. Richardson hopes will soon score with more Baltimoreans.
And, of course, there are the 18 new Andy Warhols acquired earlier this year at an independently estimated cost of more than $1 million.
The new galleries project the sensation of a large, well-circulating party. The corner-cut layout of the spaces, which allows glimpses into different areas, allows you to touch base with art you've just passed and check out art you wish to meet, to compare that group of paintings with the group you're currently engaged with, to observe something from afar without dealing directly with it.
Some of the works in these galleries seem to explode while others seem as enigmatic as a blank stare. Many develop slowly as you stand before them as if you were watching clouds or the surface of a lake.
"No one has ever suggested that modern art -- that art -- is easy," Dr. Lehman says. "People who are so anguished about modern art never stop to think that their anguish is no different than that felt about Ingres and Whistler and Monet and van Gogh. We evolve, but somehow we're always nervous about the present."
In installing the New Wing, Ms. Richardson has done her best to put the art -- and the viewers -- at ease.
"I think all the works are comfortable now and that they have neighbors that they're dialoguing with," she says. "Sometimes in the gallery, I'll just suddenly stop and say, 'Ah, what a beautiful painting!' "
Few other visitors are comfortable being so expressive, however. Especially in front of modern art.
"We don't like to let ourselves go, to say, 'Isn't that fabulous! Look at those colors!' " Dr. Lehman says. "We want explanations, we want someone to tell us what that means. We don't want to make fools of ourselves.
"The thing about contemporary painting is that there's nothing to be wrong about! But you can see such trepidation in people going through a gallery."
And the museum is attempting to address their inhibitions.
"We don't put a lot of labeling or information up," Dr. Lehman says. "We don't want people to think that if they stand in front of a painting and come to some sort of conclusion that the label is then going to tell them they're wrong. Everyone should be able to come to these works free to make their own decisions -- to hate them if they want to -- without having been channeled in one direction or another."
Setting up situations to make visitors comfortable with art is part of the museum's effort to erase the barriers -- physical and psychological -- that keep people from visiting museums.
Over the years, the Baltimore Museum of Art has taken on many roles with its educational and outreach programs. It has become home for contemporary dance companies, for such performing arts groups as Pro Musica Rara and for the Baltimore Film Forum. It has added a gift shop and a restaurant, which recently reopened as Donna's.
The Baltimore Museum of Art has become a center where culture in general and the fine arts in particular are thriving.
"The big issue in art museums for the 21st century is remembering they are, quote, 'art museums,' " says Peter Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "There is so much pressure to emphasize more of the other kinds of things that can occur like education and outreach -- all of which is critical. But, in the end, it's what's in the darn building that makes the difference.
"The Baltimore Museum has done things the right way: It worked hard on building the collection before going into bricks and mortar. . . . The building strikes me as being a very friendly environment for 20th-century and contemporary work. It's beautiful but restrained. Its real importance is that it shows the art well."
Even as they check the final details of the New Wing, museum officials are planning the next phase of expansion: adding a third floor to the 1982 Thalheimer wing. Scheduled to be constructed in 1998, this new area will provide more public space and storage for collections.
"We have to be poised to be able to grow -- which allows us to accept new gifts, expand our collections, better accommodate visitors," Dr. Lehman says. "If we have no chance of ever growing again, things are going to start to wither at some point."
Because the museum is landlocked -- with the Johns Hopkins University to the north and west, Wyman Park Dell to the south, and Charles Street to the east -- finding additional space beyond its existing buildings may prove perplexing.
"In years past, we've talked about doing something at the Power Plant, at Harbor Place, we've talked about some kind of satellite with temporary exhibitions, whatever," Dr. Lehman says.
At the moment, he's totally preoccupied with helping the museum adjust to life with a brand new wing. "First, we have to get ourselves in perfect shape here," he says. "We want to make the experience here superb before we worry about any other experiences."