Four walls for museum long without; Home: The Contemporary opens permanent quarters today. Many art lovers welcome the move, but some fear a loss of innovation.


With a shout and a flourish, workmen held high by a crane wrestle a red-black-and-yellow banner into place. Now it's official: The organization that for 10 years has promoted itself as a "museum without walls" has walls of its own -- in an insurance building at 100 W. Centre St.

In letters that can be read from two blocks away, the sign announces more than the opening today of the Contemporary Museum. It marks the newest addition to the Mount Vernon neighborhood, a midtown district that includes the Maryland Historical Society, the Walters Art Gallery and the Peabody Institute, and that gradually is coalescing into a cultural nucleus for the city.

The banner also signals a big leap by a small organization known for working outside the art establishment. The Contemporary, which prided itself on being unlike other museums, now is a little less different. Some art lovers applaud the move; others wonder whether the Contemporary Museum's new programs will be as innovative in a permanent home. This, after all, is the institution that presented shows in the back of a pickup truck, an abandoned bus station, a convent. It made being homeless a plus.

The museum's executive director, Gary Sangster, says the Contemporary Museum is not going to lose its personality. "We've always been the sand in the oysters," he says. "Will it stop being the kind of catalyst that it has been? Maybe. We may have fulfilled that particular mission, and we may become a catalyst of another kind."

White walls, white track lighting and imperfect plaster ceilings give the new museum an edgy feel: The emphasis is on art, not comfort.

Sangster's aim is to present to Baltimore audiences cutting-edge contemporary art created by nationally and internationally known artists. A home will allow the museum, which has no collection, to present year-round exhibitions and educational programs such as video festivals or lectures. But the tradition of off-site shows will continue, Sangster says. There are plans to collaborate with the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Peabody Institute.

But some members of the art community are reserving judgment. "This change has created both a sense of admiration and also, because of its history, a keen sense of anxiety about whether something that has been so vital is in a certain sense caving in to the pressures of the need to have a location," says Alan Rutberg, a professor of visual arts at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Thoughtful shows

Since 1989, the Contemporary Museum has swooped into unexpected places, installing temporary shows and engaging the community with outreach programs. Its exhibitions, often presented in collaboration with more established institutions, have popped up in sites as disparate as the Walters Art Gallery and a street corner in The Block. Often the exhibits challenged traditional notions of what art is and how and where it should be viewed. "We were like the Lone Ranger," Sangster says. "We'd plan an exhibition, come into a neighborhood, then move on to the next."

One show, "Mining the Museum," received national notice and critical acclaim in 1992 and caused cultural institutions nationwide to re-examine how they present the art and history of minorities. The show, at the Maryland Historical Society, was New York artist Fred Wilson's exploration of how achievements of African-Americans have been overlooked in the nation's cultural history.

" 'Mining the Museum' set a model for ways that institutions might think about the presentation and display of artifacts, ways of thinking about ideologies and idea systems that underlie the selection of objects," says Lynne Cooke, curator for DIA Center for the Arts in New York.

But the Contemporary's guerrilla-style approach to presenting art contributed to a perennial struggle for visibility. "For years when I would mention the Contemporary at a cocktail party everyone would say either, 'Where are you located?' or 'That's that new museum down on Key Highway, right?' " says Steve Ziger, president of the board of trustees.

The Contemporary was the brainchild of Baltimorean George Ciscle. Soft-spoken and unaffected, Ciscle more closely resembles a college professor than a maverick of the art world. Yet he has a passion for art and a penchant for change. The 52-year-old has been a Baltimore County schoolteacher, an art gallery owner and a founder of a museum. He resigned three years ago from the directorship at the Contemporary and is curator in residence at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

Original vision

Ten years ago, Ciscle saw a need for an art organization that used unusual methods to introduce contemporary art to audiences. "The mission was to explore new ways to connect contemporary artists to new audiences," he says. "But we didn't define what those ways were."

Ciscle's vision met with opposition from the art establishment of Baltimore. Both Arnold Lehman, former director of the BMA, and the late Robert Bergman, then director of the Walters Art Gallery, expressed concern that the city could not support another museum. The BMA -- which has a contemporary art wing -- was enough, they said.

Ciscle's initial idea for the Contemporary included a permanent building. When he and his board of trustees couldn't find an appropriate space, they founded their museum anyway. Ciscle hired Lisa Corrin, now a curator at the Serpentine Gallery in London, as chief curator. Within a few years, they had received a national reputation for innovative shows -- and the respect of other Baltimore arts organizations.

Relations between Baltimore's cultural institutions have improved since then. And a new generation of arts leaders -- Gary Vikan at the Walters Art Gallery, Dennis Fiori at the Maryland Historical Society, Robert Sirota at the Peabody and Doreen Bolger at the BMA -- has come into power.

The new museum is planning exhibitions with institutions that were at first skeptical. "This represents another opportunity for people in Baltimore to see great contemporary work by local, regional and national artists," says Bolger, director of the BMA. "I think it's great."

The time may be right for change at the Contemporary, Ciscle says. "In the beginning, we were looking at what museums exhibited, how they exhibited and to whom. We were putting all those questions out there. But those questions aren't new anymore -- they're the ubiquitous questions in the museum field now, and that makes me feel satisfied. Not that the Contemporary takes responsibility for the change, but that it was part of a time and a movement in which these questions were first asked."

Getting ready

Seven days before the official opening, Sangster stood in the middle of the museum. All around him, people rushed to get the new space ready for its first visitors, installing the museum's first show, "Impact, Revealing Sources for Contemporary Art."

In the main gallery, art handlers painstakingly hung a silvery Andy Warhol silk-screen of Jacqueline Kennedy lent to the museum by filmmaker John Waters. Adam Lerner, the museum's new associate curator, was in a back room trying to decide how best to install a notebook of scrawled dance steps and scribbled reminders kept from 1960 to 1964 by filmmaker Yvonne Rainer. "Leg shimmy," she wrote to herself. "Hip whack to vibrating leg." Out in the alley, the president of the board was painting a big red sign.

Sangster, 46, peered at "The Wine Leading the Wine," a painting of powdered pigment and baby oil made in 1971 by David Hammons. "Excuse me," he said to the art handler. "I think that is a little too high."

"I'm just using standard museum measurement," the handler said.

Sangster shook his head. Museums usually hang art at eye level, the midpoint of each art object carefully placed 58 inches above the floor. Sangster preferred to hang the art lower, so that it is closer to the body. So that a museum visitor isn't craning his neck, peering up at art. So that looking at art becomes less about looking than about experiencing. "Um, this isn't a standard museum," he said.

The art handler sighed.

A place to call home

Before coming to Baltimore in 1996, Sangster, who is from Australia, was director of the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art and before that, curator at the New Museum in New York. When he joined the Contemporary, he discovered that the biggest problem faced by the museum without walls was getting recognized.

"The Contemporary had a remarkably good reputation outside Baltimore, but within the city, many of its programs were attributed to other agencies," he says. In addition, attendance varied from 1,000 visitors to more than 100,000, depending upon the project.

Sangster became convinced that the Contemporary needed a home.

Now the museum occupies half the lower floor of a former insurance building on Centre Street that it rents from the nearby Maryland Historical Society. One block to the east sits the Walters Art Gallery. In a few years, the museum hopes to expand into the rest of the first floor.

Today through Jan. 3, the Contemporary's first show is on view. On the new white walls hang vertical works "painted" with smoke on rag paper by John Cage. Nearby are the skeletal remains of a fish dinner made into art by Joseph Beuys. Across the room, in a work by Rebecca Horn, a tiny, automated hammer attached to the wall taps sticks of charcoal. With each tap, fine black dust falls on a goose egg held in a stand below.

Sangster hopes the exhibition will introduce the visual "language" of contemporary art to new audiences. He has carefully chosen works by 27 renowned artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, Eva Hess, Louise Bourgeois, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Keifer and Bruce Nauman. These are the artists who he thinks have most influenced the artists of today. But he doesn't mind if visitors to the museum disagree.

"Debate is a good thing," he says. "We just want people to come here and to see the art. And we want to create a dialogue."

Pub Date: 9/25/99

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