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Moving Display

The Baltimore Sun

T he Coming Storm is going away for awhile. So is The Goose Girl. And one of Alfred Sisley's Impressionist paintings.

Maryland's temporary loss will be Tennessee's and Pennsylvania's gain, when 32 paintings from the 19th century leave the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore next month to go on the road for nearly a year as a traveling exhibit titled The Road to Impressionism: Barbizon Landscapes from the Walters Art Museum.

Directors announced this month that the museum will close its 19th-century galleries from Aug. 18 to Oct. 10 so many of the paintings now on display there can be prepared for the tour.

Conceived by the Walters staff, based on a larger exhibit that first appeared in Baltimore in 2004 and 2005, The Road to Impressionism will open Oct. 18 at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tenn., where it will remain until Jan. 11. From there it will travel to the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburgh for display from Feb. 7 to May 3.

The exhibit is the latest example of a Maryland museum sharing its wealth by sending works of art to other museums that want to display them.

The Road to Impressionism is the 18th show that the Walters has organized since it launched its traveling exhibition program in 2000. During that time, works from the Walters have traveled to 33 museums in 20 states plus the District of Columbia and five foreign countries, including France, the United Kingdom, Germany, China and Canada. They've been seen by an estimated 2.7 million people.

It's one of many ways the museum fulfills its mission, said Nancy Zinn, associate director for collections and exhibitions.

"Our mission statement says that the Walters brings art and people together for enjoyment, discovery and learning," Zinn said. "That's not just in Baltimore. It can be anywhere. The traveling exhibition program helps make that possible."

In 1931, Henry Walters left 22,000 works of art to his native city "for the benefit of the public," noted museum director Gary Vikan. The Traveling Exhibition Program was established, Vikan said, to develop and circulate exhibitions that showcase its collection "for the aesthetic and educational benefit of museum visitors everywhere."

Sending works to other cities can be a bittersweet experience for some members of the public and for the museum's curators, who miss them when they aren't in Baltimore, said Eik Kahng, curator and head of the Walters' department of 18th- and 19th-century art.

"It's a joy to know that people all over the world can see what we have in Baltimore," she said. But "it always hurts a little. You hate to see the flower of the collection go away for even a few days."

The Walters is not the only museum in Baltimore that sends works of art to other cities. The Baltimore Museum of Art also mounts traveling exhibits, including portions of its famous Cone Collection and a series of monographic exhibits on contemporary artists such as Scott Burton, Bruce Nauman and Frank Stella. Its most recent traveling shows have included Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape and The Essence of Line: French Drawings from Ingres to Degas.

Since 2000, 17 BMA-organized exhibitions have been seen by nearly 2 million people in 17 states and three foreign countries. This fall, the BMA will present its 18th traveling exhibit, the first major U.S. retrospective on the work of Austrian artist Franz West, which will open in Baltimore on Oct. 12 and go on to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in March.

Works that travel become "ambassadors for the city," said Jay Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the BMA.

Whether they go to smaller towns elsewhere in Maryland or regions such as the Southwest or West Coast, they can help build an audience for the sponsoring museum and enhance its reputation as a major location for art, said Doreen Bolger, director of the BMA.

They also help attract talented curators to the staff, provide opportunities for scholarship and partnership with like-minded institutions, and put Baltimore in a positive light, Bolger said. "Positive stories about Baltimore, in the national and international press, are really important."

Effect on Walters

Many museums are asked to lend one or two works for a show. It's different when one museum is the primary or sole source of works that make up a traveling exhibit and has to close part of its own collection while those works are away.

That's the case with The Road to Impressionism, which is based entirely on paintings from the Walters' collection.

The idea behind the exhibit is to present works by early 19th-century French landscape painters who were the precursors to the Impressionists, artists known for painting outdoors and celebrating the virtues of color and light.

In France, a group known as the Barbizon school of artists painted outdoors before the Impressionists and played a crucial role in the rise of Impressionism. Principal figures in this group were Theodore Rousseau, Jean-Francois Millet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Charles-Francois Daubigny. They painted starting in the 1820s around Barbizon, a village in the forest of Fontainebleau, about 40 miles southeast of Paris. They also explored the French countryside from the coast of Normandy to the Seine River to the Pyrenees Mountains. By taking their paints and easels out into the open air to capture French landscapes in a representational way, they anticipated the exploration of outdoor painting by Claude Monet and other Impressionists in the 1870s.

Among the highlights of the traveling exhibit are a number of works by Daubigny, including The Coming Storm, Early Spring, from 1874. Also included will be Millet's popular The Goose Girl, from the early 1860s, and Sisley's Terrace at Saint Germain: Spring, dated 1875.

By showcasing the work of these and other landscape painters, the exhibit also tells a larger story about the beginnings of the Impressionist movement and underscores the strength of the Walters' 19th-century art collection.

According to Kahng and Zinn, the Walters is one of the few museums whose permanent collection includes both a full range of works by artists from the Barbizon school and the Impressionists who came later.

Although the works selected for the traveling exhibit will be away from Baltimore for nearly a year, the Walters' 19th-century galleries, on the fourth level of its Centre Street building, won't be closed for that long.

The galleries will be reinstalled and reopen Oct. 1 with paintings from the permanent collection that aren't usually on display, including works by Alfred Jacob Miller, Martin Johnson Heade and Belgian artist Louis Gallait. Many favorites from the Walters' collection, by notables such as Monet, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, will return to the galleries as well. These works will be on display until February 2010.

In addition, a few 19th-century artworks will remain on view in the fourth-floor lobby of the Centre Street building and a separate show titled Sonya Clark: Loose Strands, Tight Knots will be on the fourth floor through Sept. 21.

Popular shows

The Walters' touring exhibits typically have grown out of shows that were displayed first in Baltimore, but that is not always the case.

Bedazzled: 5000 Years of Jewelry is the name of an exhibit that was organized by the Walters staff for display in other cities and not originally meant to be shown in Baltimore. The show proved to be so popular in the touring cities, Nashville, Tenn., and Sarasota, Fla., that the Walters plans to present it in Baltimore from Oct. 19 to Jan. 4.

In some cases, the Walters is the sole originator of an exhibit. In others, it collaborates with additional museums. At present, the Walters is working with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Musee d'Orsay in Paris on an exhibit of works by Jean-Leon Jerome that will be shown at all three locations.

Before a museum sends works out, directors say, it makes sure that the intended presenter meets strict standards for security, climate control and other criteria.

Sometimes, the Walters has been forced to turn down requests for a traveling exhibit if a proposed site does not meet its standards. Several years ago, Zinn said, operators of the Muvico cinema complex in Anne Arundel County, which has an Egyptian theme, asked to borrow some works from the Walters' Egyptian collection for its grand opening.

But museum directors determined that the theater did not have adequate security to protect the ancient artifacts that operators wanted to display. Zinn and Kahng said the Walters has never suffered any loss or major damage to works sent on tour, but that doesn't mean curators can let down their guard.

"You're always happy when they come back home," Kahng said.

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