Over the next three years, the Walters Art Gallery intends to convert part of its 1974 building to a two-story Family Art Center where admission will always be free.
One level of this free zone will feature family-friendly installations of two popular museum exhibits, the Egyptian Collection and the Arms and Armor Collection, as well as a museum store twice the size of the present one.
Another level will become a hands-on studio for children, with a small gallery set aside so budding artists can display their own creations.
Beyond the museum's walls, a Walters Education Outpost will be established at Port Discovery, the children's museum planned for Market Place in downtown Baltimore. Featuring the themes "Daily Life in Ancient Egypt" and "Chivalry," it will project the presence of the museum and its new family center into the Inner Harbor tourist district.
These family-oriented spaces and activities are critical elements a strategic plan for elevating the Walters to "a new level of excellence" by reaching out to the community in different ways and by reinstalling much of its permanent collection.
Assembled starting in the 19th century by William and Henry Walters, the collection was bequeathed to the city of Baltimore in 1931 and put on public view in 1934. Today the Walters is considered one of the world's great museums.
The goal behind the next round of improvements, directors say, is to make it even more accessible -- "an open textbook" spanning more than 5,000 years of art history.
The target date for completion is Dec. 31, 2000 -- the dawn of the new millennium.
"By the early years of the next century, the Walters will be a different institution in a variety of important ways," said director Gary Vikan, who is leading the effort to rethink and reposition it. "It is within our grasp to become the finest and most visitor-effective encyclopedic art museum in the world."
The comprehensive strategy was developed in conjunction with a master plan for a $12 million renovation that will get under way in 1997.
The planning effort was launched in 1994 primarily to address mechanical deficiencies in the Walters' 1974 wing. They include ceiling-mounted "reheater" coils that sometimes drip water and oil onto galleries below and a climate control system that does not maintain the steady temperature and humidity levels needed to preserve works of art.
But directors decided that, as long as the building had to be
repaired anyway, with spaces off-limits temporarily, they should take the opportunity to reinstall the collection there and enhance the visitors' experience in other ways as well.
At the northeast corner of Centre and Cathedral streets, the 1974 building is one of four occupied by the Walters. Others include the 1904 main gallery at 600 N. Charles St., a replica of the Palazzo Balbi in Genoa, Italy; a museum of Asian art at 1 West Mount Vernon Place; and administrative offices at 5 West Mount Vernon Place. The galleries draw 250,000 to 300,000 visitors a year.
The 1974 building houses collections that are among the Walters' greatest strengths, including its Egyptian, Greek and Roman works, and its medieval and Islamic art. On five levels, it also contains an auditorium, gift shop, space for temporary exhibits and offices for museum staff.
"With the renovation of the 1974 wing, our visitors will find half of the art we now display reinstalled to maximize its aesthetic impact while conveying the rich historical and human message of the cultures that gave it birth," Vikan said.
"From ancient Mesopotamia to late medieval Europe, these cultures and their works will come alive for the visitor through a variety of new learning media, including audio labeling and touch-screen computers linked to our collection database."
In addition, permanent exhibit spaces will be upgraded, and a new temporary exhibit space will be created on the top level of the 1974 building.
On most levels, the 1974 building has diagonal walls that do not line up with or lead into the rectangular galleries in the 1904 building next door. Some visitors have criticized the 1974 building for being a maze of spaces that are disorienting and hard to figure out. As part of the renovation, walls will be removed and reconfigured so the relationship between the 1974 and 1904 buildings is more clear.
"The weakest aspect of the building is the jumble of diagonals and orthogonals, so you don't know where you are," Vikan said. But "once you can get all the walls out, there are a lot of possibilities" for addressing the problem.
One of the most dramatic changes will be creation of the Family Art Center, designed to contain collections and displays that appeal to children and are relevant to the museum's educational mission.
It will occupy about 25 percent of the 1974 building, including sections of the first and basement levels. Its entrance is likely to take the shape of an Egyptian temple facade, rendered in a stone-like material.
Inside, tomblike chambers with closely spaced columns
will provide a setting that might suggest the experience of entering the site of an archaeological "dig." The Walters has even hired an Egyptologist for the first time in 50 years to help plan it.
Vikan said he wants a space that will grab a child's attention.
"The feeling I want is that when they go to the Egyptian Collection, they become archaeologists in Egypt, and when they go to Arms and Armor, they become a knight in shining armor," he said.
"We want kids not to be spectators, but to be participants," he added. "There is no place where the Egyptian collection has been presented with the drama and excitement that we are going to have."
One of the first
The Family Art Center would make the Walters one of the first museums in the country to feature a permanent area that is free year-round and targeted to children and families.
Vikan said it was inspired by the success of the family-oriented Children's Art Resource Center at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The center opened in 1990.
"I went to Richmond and loved it," Vikan said. "It was very clear to me that we needed a hands-on center, too."
Vikan said he is enthusiastic about the Family Art Center because he believes a free space will help draw more children and families to the Walters. And once they are inside, he said, he is optimistic that the introductory exhibits will encourage them to explore other parts of the museum as well.
More than 50,000 visitors under age 16 come to the Walters each year, most of them as part of a school group. That figure accounts for 20 to 25 percent of the Walters' total annual attendance. With the opening of the Family Art Center, Vikan said, he expects the number of visitors under 16 to increase to 100,000.
Besides the Family Art Center, the museum plans to:
Reinstall the collection in the 1974 building so it can be toured and understood as a chronological journey through 5,000 years of art history, from 3500 B.C. to A.D. 1500. The Family Art Center will anchor the basement and first levels. Ancient art will be on the second, in a space possibly evoking the Temple of Delphi. Medieval art will be on the third floor.
Re-establish 600 N. Charles St. as the primary public entrance to the museum and make the Centre Street entrance for children and families, school groups and other groups.
Add a three-story glass atrium at the Centre Street entrance to provide a much-needed air lock for the lobby and provide a less steep ramp for wheelchairs.
Expand second-floor galleries of the 1974 wing by enclosing outdoor space on the terrace level.
Money for the renovation of the 1974 building is coming from a variety of sources, public and private, and the museum is still raising money, as well.
Its latest timetable calls for construction to get under way in fall of 1997. Vikan said work will be carried out in phases so the museum doesn't have to close the entire building.
The museum had to launch such a comprehensive project because it couldn't accomplish its goals any other way, Vikan explained.
"It was clear to me that we had a big issue that wasn't going to be fixed by a piecemeal process," he said. "We thought of tearing the building down and starting over, but that would have been too expensive. This is the next best thing."
After interviewing four of the nation's leading museum designers, the Walters Art Gallery has selected the Boston-based firm of Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood Architects Inc. to prepare final designs for the renovations of its 1974 building.
A nationally prominent firm with extensive experience in museum design work, Kallmann is perhaps best known as the architect of Boston City Hall; the Hynes Convention Center in Boston; and the corporate headquarters for Becton Dickinson & Co. in Franklin Lakes, N.J.
Its past museum projects include the Asian Export Art Wing of the Peabody Museum in Salem, Mass.; expansion of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Mass.; and a new home for the Minnesota Museum of Art.
This is its first major project in Maryland. The original designer of the 1974 building, Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott, also hails from New England.
Michael McKinnell, principal-in-charge of the project, noted that the Walters commission is not the largest his firm has ever taken on and will not result in a new building.
Nevertheless, he said, "It's one of the most important commissions for us and for me, personally, because it is such a prestigious institution and because it is an art gallery."
McKinnell said the project involves many of the issues that architects love to address -- including how to get people to go from one space to another, the admission and control of light, and "the creation of spaces which are to serve what for any architect might be one of the noblest functions -- the display of paintings and fine artifacts."
He said he also is fascinated by the challenge of making a marriage between two very different buildings -- the neoclassical 1904 building and the neobrutalist 1974 building -- in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. "It's a very, very intriguing problem."
Other finalists under consideration for the design commission were Gwathmey Siegel & Associates of New York; Hartman Cox of Washington; and Hammond Beeby and Babka of Chicago.
Museum director Gary Vikan said that while all the candidates were first-rate, the museum's selection committee was most impressed by Kallmann's team and the presentation made by partner Michael McKinnell.
The museum was seeking designers who have experience working with contemporary buildings and who "could extract from our building the most exciting results," Vikan said.
Of the four finalists, the Kallmann team appeared to understand the 1974 building best and offer the best hope of coming up with innovative solutions to improve it, he said.
"They stole the show," agreed Jonathan Fishman, a local architect who advised the selection committee. "The key to making something out of the 1974 building is hiring someone who is very clever and approaches the job in a very careful way.
"Michael McKinnell is not a salesman. He's a real scholar. It's a very high-quality firm."
The newly hired architects will build on a master plan that has been completed for the museum over the past two years by a Philadelphia-based architectural firm, the Vitetta Group, and others.
Vitetta's final report contains many of the recommendations now under consideration for the 1974 building, including creation of the Family Art Center and orientation of the entrance back to Charles Street.
Vikan said not all of Vitetta's ideas will be implemented, but the firm has left a valuable document to guide future work.
At this stage, he said, the project is like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, just waiting to be put together.
"The final details aren't designed. But what we want is pretty clear."
Pub Date: 8/18/96