Baltimore's contemporary art scene seems in a bit of a doldrums right now, with the departure last fall of the Baltimore Museum of Art's contemporary curator, Helen Molesworth, and the failure of the Contemporary Museum to name a successor after last summer's abrupt exit of director Gary Sangster.
But things appear to be looking up. BMA director Doreen Bolger and her search committee could select a candidate to replace Molesworth as early as May, museum administrators say.
They're looking for someone who is engaged with contemporary art and who has a rapport with the artists. But they also want someone with wide-ranging art history education who can put the museum's collection of contemporary art in context. And, finally, they're searching for someone who can continue to build the audience for contemporary art through exhibitions, public programs and publications.
"We'd like someone with real intellect and soundness of ideas, with enough knowledge and experience to place contemporary art in the context of the rich collection at the BMA and someone who is adventuresome and risk-taking, imaginative and really able to propel us forward and be a catalyst for new ideas and change," said Bolger.
Molesworth, who left the BMA last year to go to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, put on some of the most interesting shows given anywhere during her three-year tenure.
Exhibits she curated included Body Space, an exploration of the body as a mode of understanding, Looking Forward/Looking Black, an examination of how African-Americans are portrayed in art and mass media, and Work Ethic, a show about the changing character of artistic labor that will open at the BMA this fall.
To fill Molesworth's shoes, the BMA almost needs a superstar curator, someone like ex-Whitney Museum curator Thelma Golden, now of the Studio Museum in Harlem, who can pump some electricity, excitement and glamour into the place.
Likewise, the Contemporary Museum recently launched its own search for a new director, having finally assured itself that the institution is now on a path toward long-term financial stability, according to board president Michael Salcman.
When Sangster left the Contemporary after his contract wasn't renewed, the museum faced mounting debts and uncertainty about its role. Since then, the museum board has worked to pay off debt and to redefine the museum's mission from a primarily exhibition-based institution to one that sponsors collaborative projects with other institutions.
The Contemporary now aims to bring one or two artists-in-residence to Baltimore each year to create such partnerships. The museum's first artist-in-residence will be British-born filmmaker Isaac Julian, whose project involves a spoof of the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. Parts of the film were shot at the Walters Art Museum, which is the Contemporary's collaborator on this project.
But the Contemporary still hasn't announced a target date for hiring a new director. And the Julian project won't be presented to the public until next fall. In the meantime, there's a sense of drift at the museum that won't be dispelled until a new director is on board, notwithstanding the excellent contemporary photography show there this winter and the video installations planned for spring and summer.
The contemporary art world is changing more rapidly than ever, and without a firm curatorial hand at the tiller neither the BMA nor the Contemporary can hope to keep up with the constant stream of new developments.
Both Molesworth and Sangster managed to bring intriguing, challenging, informative - and occasionally exasperating - contemporary art to Baltimore, for which this city will remain forever in their debt.
Neither can really be replaced - gifted contemporary art curators are one-of-a-kind phenomena. But the function they performed must be continued, and vigorously.
We need someone at the BMA who has the blend of knowledge, flair and salesmanship ability that Molesworth brought to the institution. Her arrival literally revitalized a place that had become more than a bit stodgy and conservative when it came to contemporary art.
Molesworth had an eye for quality that could also spot the new or interesting trend. But even more important, she was unusually articulate about what she saw. She was a great communicator who could reach out to new potential audiences and bring them into the museum.
When some visitors complained about a painting in the BMA that seemed to glorify terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, for example, Molesworth turned a controversy into a chance to educate by explaining artist Christopher Wool's work in a way that calmed people's anxieties.
And we didn't have to agree with her views to be convincedthat she had thought long and deeply about the art she championed so expertly.
Sangster didn't quite have Molesworth's gift of gab, but he was equally dedicated to new art. He shepherded the Contemporary into its first permanent exhibition space, which gave it a visibility in the community it didn't have before. And despite limited resources, he managed to bring some truly interesting and challenging art to Baltimore.
This is the kind of enlightened leadership Baltimore needs to continue building on the progress made in creating exciting venues for contemporary art. Without it, our local private galleries will be hard pressed to take up the slack, local artists will feel more isolated, the city's future as an vibrant art center will be put at risk. And that is something no one wants to see happen.