Facing serious financial problems, the Contemporary Museum has closed the exhibition space at its Centre Street headquarters and is beginning a new fund-raising campaign to save the institution. The museum's staff will remain in the building, however.
Nonetheless, board chairman Michael Salcman vigorously insisted upon the institution's continuing viability. "As Mark Twain once said, reports of our demise are greatly exaggerated," he said, adding that he hopes the gallery will re-open in a year.
The museum has been without a director since last summer, when Gary Sangster left the job after his contract was not renewed. He had headed the museum since 1996.
The Contemporary was founded in 1989 by Baltimorean George Ciscle, and in its early years dubbed itself "the museum without walls" because it had no permanent location. Under Ciscle's leadership, the museum presented a series of provocative temporary exhibits in spaces as varied as the Walters Art Museum, an abandoned Greyhound bus garage and a vacant strip mall store.
During Sangster's tenure, the museum moved into a permanent home at 100 W. Centre St. and began mounting regular exhibits featuring nationally and internationally recognized contemporary artists. Its most recent shows included exhibitions of photography from the collection of Miami Beach, Fla., couple Dennis and Debra Scholl and paintings by New York artist Louisa Chase. But when the Chase exhibit ended last month, no new show replaced it.
The Scholl and Chase exhibitions had already been scheduled when the Contemporary's most recent strategic plan was drawn up last winter, Salcman said. "We had a full year of exhibitions we had previously committed to, so we put the drive toward implementing the strategic plan in abeyance. Now we need to concentrate on implementing the plan."
That plan calls for the board to hire a director and raise money. It also describes how the museum would sponsor fellowships for mid-career artists, curators and critics who would develop shows in collaboration with local institutions and artists - turning Baltimore into a "cultural laboratory," Salcman says.
As an example, the board chairman pointed to the museum's recent collaboration with British artist Isaac Julian, who worked with the Contemporary, the Walters and the Great Blacks in Wax Museum to produce a documentary film about the so-called "blaxploitation" movies of the 1960s and 1970s.
"We got pretty excited about that," Salcman said. "That was like one of our early projects from the George Ciscle days. In the future, we hope we can find one or two fellows a year to do similar kinds of things, and also have the kind of director who can mentor them in their projects."
So far, the museum has narrowed its search for a director to about 10 candidates and plans to start interviewing them soon, Salcman said, adding that a new director could be hired by the end of the year.
In the interim, there are no plans to move the museum from its Centre Street location, he said. "We would like to stay because we assume after this period we'll do shows both inside and outside the space and because our two best collaborating institutions are right beside us." The board chairman also touted recent successes, including a $22,000 grant from the Maryland State Arts Council and an award for board development and governance from the American Association of Museums.
"Those are all signs of terrific vitality," he said. "We are committed to reinventing the museum for the third time. We are going to implement the plan."
Walters Art Museum
In other museum news, the Walters Art Museum has announced it is seeking volunteers for the forthcoming exhibit Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from The British Museum.
The museum needs people to assist as temporary greeters, ticket collectors and distributors, audio tour assistants and telephone attendants. Schedules are flexible.
Volunteers must attend a two-hour training session. The sessions will take place on Sept. 6 and Sept. 13 from 10 a.m. to noon, and on Sept. 8 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Volunteers must be 18 or older. The show runs from Sept. 21 through Jan. 18. For more information, call 410-547-9000, Ext. 281.
The Baltimore Museum of Art will present a slide lecture on collecting African-American art by renowned scholar David Driskell on Sept. 21 at 2 p.m.
The presentation will focus on the acquisition of African-American artwork by both private and public collections, and will also include commentary on the BMA's recent acquisitions.
Driskell, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park, is one of the world's leading authorities on African-American art. In 2000, President Clinton presented him with the National Humanities Medal for his work as an artist, curator, scholar and educator. His articles and essays on African-American art have appeared in more than 20 major publications throughout the world.
The lecture is free with museum admission and will be followed by a reception. For more information, call 410-396-6314.