African museum to expand into city; Branch is to open downtown in 2001


When Doris and Claude Ligon founded the African Art Museum of Maryland out of their Columbia home in 1980, their goal was to follow the "ABC" rule.

"ABC" stood for Annapolis, Baltimore and Columbia, and the Ligons' aspiration was further expansion.

Now just a year shy of celebrating its 20th anniversary, the African Art Museum is tucked away on the second floor of the historic Oakland Mansion.

The museum's two elegant but small rooms are crammed with traditional African art and crafts, paintings and prints by ancient and contemporary African artists.

But in 2001, the museum will open a branch in downtown Baltimore in the four-story Blaustein Exhibition Center.

"We're just absolutely thrilled," art historian Doris Ligon says. "Columbia is our base and always will be. We've always wanted to branch out, but little did I know that it would be coming in my lifetime."

The museum's downtown location is part of an ambitious proposal by Baltimore's housing department, which wants to rejuvenate the dormant City Life Museums complex.

The six properties -- north of Little Italy on the east side of President Street, in an area known as Museum Row -- are a collection of city-owned attractions that closed in June 1997 because of financial difficulties.

Last year, Baltimore housing officials sought proposals to identify prospective users for the site, which likely will reopen as a museum, an inn and conference center, a school for children with learning disabilities and law offices.

The African Art Museum is one of three museums in Howard County that display art exclusively from Africa and the only one begun by an African-American.

Over the years, the Ligons have amassed a huge collection of artifacts, some bought on their many trips to Africa and others borrowed from other area art collectors.

Ligon says she had hoped that the museum could erect its own building in Columbia -- one large enough to display its collection of several hundred pieces that are mostly kept in storage.

"We have in our possession enough art to fill the entire building," she says. "We have plenty of art. We also have access to three other collections. We definitely need more space, but that's not possible in this building."

Willie Lamouse-Smith, a professor of African studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a member of the museum's advisory council, says the proposed expansion into Baltimore is a step in the right direction.

"The museum is not just a museum where people go and look at things," Lamouse-Smith says. "Their goal is to bring the museum to people. It's a living museum."

Baltimore a logical location

Having a museum dedicated to African art makes sense in a city whose population is 60 percent African-American, he says.

The majority of Baltimore's population "is of African descent and not many of them have access to this kind of art, especially in terms of having access to transportation to get out to Columbia."

Lamouse-Smith says that once Baltimore residents "come to know the artwork in the museum, they will become addicted. Surely you have people who may not be able to afford these works of art, but who still want to know about it. This will give them a way."

People of African descent have historically been slow to understand what forms the core of their heritage, Lamouse-Smith says. "The soul of a people is always found in its art."

First called Gallery Ligon, the museum became the African Art Museum of Maryland in 1983, at the same time it found a home at Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia.

It moved to Rockland Arts Center in Ellicott City in 1985 before shifting to its current site four years later.

All the museum's pieces are donated or lent.

$100,000 budget

The museum's $100,000 annual budget comes from private donations, fees from outreach programs, occasional grants, fund-raisers such as trips to Africa and admission fees.

With two paid staff members and a small core of volunteers, the museum's exhibits cannot be rotated regularly.

Instead, individual pieces are changed periodically.

"We've been very fortunate," Doris Ligon says. "We've always been so appreciative to have the opportunity to bring this art to people."

The African Art Museum of Maryland is at 5430 Vantage Point Road in Columbia. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $2; $1 for seniors and children younger than 12. Members get in free. Information: 410-730-7105.

An article in yesterday's Howard County section of The Sun incorrectly stated that the African Art Museum of Maryland is one of three museums in Howard County to display art exclusively from Africa. It is one of three such museums in the United States and is the only African art museum in Howard County. The Sun regrets the error.
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