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The BMA turns 100

The BMA: A century of believing great art is for everyone.

The Baltimore Museum of Art owes its existence to the work of civic-minded citizens a century ago who believed that a great city was incomplete without a great art museum. And from the beginning their vision of the purpose of a great museum was to provide a place for people of every station in life to come together around the idea that great art is something everyone can enjoy and appreciate.

Today it is clear that the BMA, which turned 100 this month, has more than fulfilled that mission. Its collections are celebrated around the world, and its exhibitions draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Since its founding the museum has helped bind the ties of community in countless ways and celebrated our cultural legacy as a source of pride for all who call Baltimore home.

The most important work owned by the Baltimore Museum of Art, which incorporated Nov. 16, 1914, and held its first exhibitions in an townhouse off Mount Vernon Square, may be its elegant building in Wyman Park, which opened in 1929. Designed by in the classical revival style by architect John Russell Pope, who later went on to design the Jefferson Memorial and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the BMA has been added to and expanded many times over the years; the museum is marking the centennial of its birth this year with the reopening Sunday of its American art galleries after a two-year, $7.9 million restoration.

The men and women who founded the BMA were collectors and connoisseurs, bankers, merchants and titans of industry. From the start they rejected the idea of the museum as a lifeless mausoleum for dusty objects in favor of creating a public space for "modern, lively, popular, teaching and inspiring community activity." They all brought different interests, perspectives and passions to the work of creating the museum and sustaining it through the gifts they bequeathed, and that startling diversity is reflected in the richness of the BMA's collections today.

Baltimore's Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta, were rich, somewhat eccentric heirs to a textile fortune who delighted in meeting and mingling with the daring young European modernists of their day who were overturning conventional ideas about art. The sisters, whose penchant for collecting combined a sharp eye for aesthetic innovation with a shop-till-you-drop acquisitiveness, purchased hundreds of paintings, drawings and sculpture from Picasso, Matisse and others, nearly all of which they eventually donated to the BMA.

By contrast, Dorothy McIlvain Scott, whose collection of American furniture forms one of the pillars of the BMA's decorative arts collection, eschewed the limelight but became one of the museum's most generous and knowledgeable donors. The American Wing that reopened this weekend bears her name in tribute to her unflagging commitment to the museum, and several of the exquisitely wrought pieces she and her mother began collecting in the 1940s — including an early 19th-century landscape painting meant to be mounted over a fireplace mantel and an 18th-century chest of drawers eight feet tall — occupy pride of place in the newly renovated spaces.

Both Scott and the Cone sisters typified the spirit that gave birth to the BMA a century ago, and that has guided its mission to educate, inspire and delight ever since. On the occasion of its 100th birthday, we salute all those who have made its success possible and look forward to its continued contributions on behalf of the Baltimore community for many more years to come.

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