The founder of the Contemporary, one of Baltimore's most provocative museums, has announced that he is stepping down as its director.
George Ciscle, who has seen the institution grow in seven years from an upstart with no home to a respected presenter of nationally acclaimed exhibitions, will leave his post in July.
Under his leadership and that of curator Lisa Corrin, the Contemporary has presented such well-received and unconventional exhibitions as "Mining the Museum" in 1992 in collaboration with the Maryland Historical Society, and the just-closed "Going for Baroque" with the Walters Art Gallery.
"The Contemporary right now is really at its best -- its mission and its goals are in good shape," Mr. Ciscle said. "It really is the time to allow the leadership to take the museum to a new level. It is the time both personally and professionally for me to move on."
Sometimes referred to as an "un-museum," the Contemporary is an arts venue literally without walls. It organizes temporary exhibitions, sometimes with other Baltimore institutions, in unexpected spaces: painted screens and wood carvings exhibited in the back of a Chevy pickup, photographs from the former Soviet Union in an abandoned bus station, ceramics in an East Baltimore convent.
Mr. Ciscle's decision to leave was unexpected, said Sandra Dalsheimer, president of the museum's board of trustees. "We didn't want it to happen, but it did happen and it's George's decision, and now we've absorbed the surprise and are looking at it as positive both for him and for us," she said.
Tall, fair and often bespectacled, Mr. Ciscle more closely resembles a Classics teacher than a maverick of the art world. Yet, again and again his professional life has taken unexpected turns. In 1985, he left a career as a Baltimore County art teacher to open an art gallery. After four years, he closed the gallery, saying it was not financially viable and that he was unhappy with the commercialism of the gallery world.
Soon after, he began working to open a contemporary art museum that would celebrate less-known artists and would involve a broad spectrum of the community in the creative process.
In 1990, when Mr. Ciscle made public his plans to create a new venue for contemporary art in Baltimore, he met with opposition. Both Arnold Lehman, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and Bob Bergman, then head of the Walters, voiced concern that the city could not support another museum. One contemporary art museum -- the BMA -- was enough, they said.
Unable to find a building to house their museum, Mr. Ciscle and his supporters decided to found a museum with no walls. Since then, in 11 exhibitions over seven years, the museum has proven that walls of another sort can be broken down, as well.
"[The Contemporary] has inspired us to think about art and art history, think about the relationship between art and the community in ways that we never have before," said Fred Lazarus IV, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art, which has collaborated with the Contemporary. "George has done a remarkable job of bringing in people who otherwise would never have any interest in seeing contemporary works in a museum or gallery setting."
And the young museum's successes may have allayed some of the concerns voiced about the project at the beginning.
"George and his leadership of the Contemporary have done an outstanding job. They have really created a niche for themselves both locally and, in a way, nationally," said Mr. Lehman.
He added, "I would be less than candid to say that I'm not always concerned about what the size of the well is and how much water can be drawn from it and how it gets distributed. [But] if one knew then what one knows now I probably wouldn't have expressed any concern at all."
The board of trustees will conduct a national search for a new director, said Ms. Dalsheimer. "We hope to find someone before George leaves. If we're lucky, we'll find an unusual person, because ours is not a traditional museum and it will take someone who has a different view of what museums are about."
Mr. Ciscle isn't saying what comes next for himself, however. "I know for sure that I don't want to remain the director of the Contemporary, but I haven't allowed myself the time to think about what I will do next," he said.