Against the wall in the ManneqART Museum in Laurel stands a torched wedding gown with a straitjacket bodice, topped with a bride and groom in an electric chair. The piece — a play on marriage and relationships — is titled “Committed,” according to Lee Andersen, founder and director of the nonprofit that runs the museum.
“The artist,” she mused, “is actually happily married.”
That sculpture, and hundreds of others currently in storage, will soon relocate to Baltimore, along with the museum and Andersen’s sprawling clothing design business and studio. The move, in the works for a year, is the first phase of a large-scale community art project that will eventually span two city blocks near the Inner Harbor and will feature immersive art murals, life-size sculptures and the newly founded Maryland Fashion Institute, or MDfin.
At least, that’s the plan. Much of the project is still in the planning stages, Andersen said, though the relocation is definite. The museum and studio, currently tucked in the back of an industrial park at 9010 Maier Road, are expected to move in June to 322 W. Baltimore St., a building constructed in the 1890s that originally housed a bank. The facade is white, with columns and arched windows, and “is the perfect gallery space for us,” Andersen said.
MDfin will be housed around the corner on the same block at 10 N. Howard St. The school will accept a maximum of 30 students for its 12-month program, with each month spent on a different specialty — working with Andersen on design, learning graphic design and Photoshop, cutting and sewing. Opening the school was a large impetus for the move, Andersen said, as the current studio doesn’t have the space to spare.
“The move is, largely, to allow students to have space with us,” she said. “I’m in my 60s and some of my staff is more mature as well. We’re finding it urgent to start the school, as we don’t want the knowledge to be lost.”
ManneqART is “an international arts and education nonprofit that inspires creativity, teaches problem-solving skills, and rewards excellence in Sculpture on the Human Form,” according to the organization’s website. In its Laurel location, the museum shares space with Andersen-Becker Inc., a clothing business and design studio Andersen co-owns.
Pieces are designed and made in-house, then shipped to about 500 specialty boutiques around the country. Recently, orders were shipping to Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina.
The business has been in Laurel for nearly 18 years, Andersen said, but sharing space with the museum was always meant to be a temporary measure. The move will be a big change in some ways, but not so much in others.
“We started at Historic Savage Mill, and in a way it’s kind of a coming home for us to move to this area in Baltimore. Historic Savage Mill has got all of the beauty of a very old building — wonderful old brickwork and stonework — and the new spaces that we’re moving into have a really similar rich texture,” she said. “Also, Historic Savage Mill made fabric sails for sailboats at one time, and the area we’re moving into was the original fashion district for Baltimore.”
It will cost $29,000 to move everything – hundreds of huge bolts of fabric, sewing stations, industrial cutting knives, clothing racks, bins of buttons, paints, mannequins – to the new site. That doesn’t include packing, which will be done on site by employees.
Moving to Baltimore will allow more tourists to access the museum, provide space for the school, allow the nonprofit to hold more events and, perhaps most importantly, present the opportunity for a large-scale community art installation, which Andersen called the work of her life.
“In our current neighborhood, we’re in the back end of an industrial park and we are completely isolated from the arts community,” she said. “We need to build a more visual arts community around us.”
In Baltimore, Andersen hopes that process will eventually encompass two separate city blocks. The first project — phase one — will transform the museum’s immediate surroundings. ManneqART sculptures will be on display in windows around the block, and the nonprofit is planning to work with students and community members to create art within an adjacent parking garage. The MDfin building will feature a 26-foot copper mermaid with green fins, golden skin and a Maryland crab atop her head.
The mermaid is the school’s mascot, Andersen said, selected because fish can’t sew.
“Their fins are too short,” she said. “But the mermaids can do it quite well and they specialize in embroidery.”
The second project — phase two — is more ambitious and still in the planning stages. It would require the purchase of a second city block, where Andersen envisions an art park, anchored by a six-story fiberglass museum called aMUSEd. She hopes for the structure to be a loose, crinkled pyramid shape, with six stories of art exhibits topped by a huge kaleidoscope that throws colors down the translucent sides, visible both inside and out.
Elsewhere on the block, Andersen is planning large-scale murals that wrap around buildings and play with perspective, giving viewers the feeling that they’re shifting size. One side, for example, would feature tall buildings, progressing to normal-sized buildings, and then, around the corner, the viewer is suddenly smaller than towering blades of grass and flowers. Other buildings would feature sculptures that play with perspective — viewed one way, something appears like a spider web; from another angle, it’s a tiny ladder being climbed by a nymph.
“The entire city block would have different artwork, so depending on where you stand, you see different things,” she said. “The art park is an entire city block, and the whole time you’re there, you’re in this other world.”
It’s an ambitious plan, and Andersen is working diligently to make it reality. She’s in talks with architects and with officials in the city of Baltimore, and is actively seeking partnerships to help fund the project. If all goes well, she hopes to break ground on it within 18 months — about a year after first settling in the city.
“If there is someone out there that really wants to make a major difference to an area in Baltimore that’s got such potential but has not had a lot of love lately, then that would be fantastic,” she said. “There’s a whole community around there we would invite into the project.”
It’s unclear what will happen to the space in Laurel once manneqART makes its move. Andersen’s current landlord declined to comment directly, saying through Andersen that they currently have no plans for the space once she leaves it.
But vacating the place where she’s worked for nearly two decades is not particularly bittersweet, she said.
“We’re not emotionally leaving. We’re just physically picking ourselves up,” she said. “We’re aiming for community revitalization, and Laurel doesn’t need it. Laurel is perfectly lovely already.”