Doreen Bolger's impact on Baltimore's art scene could scarcely be overstated. As director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, she not only dramatically elevated the museum's curatorial standards (upgrading how artwork is displayed and explained to visitors) and improved the organization's finances, but she better connected the museum to Charm City. Under her guidance, the century-old institution became more relevant than ever — displaying not just the great French Impressionist treasures of sisters Etta and Claribel Cone but of local artists as well.
That Ms. Bolger believes the greatest triumph of her 17 years at the BMA was her decision to eliminate the admission charge in 2006 — a risky choice given the revenue involved — explains a lot of what makes her tick. It wasn't enough to make the museum a better place with a $28 million face-lift or to nearly double the endowment during her tenure from $56.2 million to $101 million, it was even more important to make it relevant to the average Baltimorean. "It shouldn't matter what your economic status or education might be," the Long Island native observes. "Artists often have the least amount of money to pay. What was important was to make the museum's treasures available to everyone in the community and beyond."
Indeed, if anything has defined her tenure in Baltimore, it's an understanding that her job wasn't confined to the offices, hallways or display areas of the BMA's classical revival building in Wyman Park. The Charles Village resident, an expert in American art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, doesn't just speak the language of John Singer Sargent or Frederic Remington but of artists like David Marion of Station North or Breon Gilleron, a registered nurse and Baltimore mother of two who creates award-winning sculpture in her spare time.
"She is so interwoven in the civic fabric," marvels Melissa McC. Warlow, director of the Baker Fund Grants Program. "She knows local artists and serves on boards. She helps people write grant proposals and generates this sense of good will. Everyone respects and adores her for what she does. She goes all day and all night."
Ms. Bolger has a lifelong affection for art — she grew up painting and sculpting — but neither of her parents finished high school and so the path forward wasn't obvious. Even as a senior at Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Syosset, she never considered going to art school. But she did apply to Bucknell University and was the last one accepted to the freshman class. Uncertain of her abilities and fearful of flunking out, she spent most her time in the library studying, only to look up one day to discover a classmate tapping her on the shoulder — she'd just been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After that came a master's degree from the University of Delaware and eventually a doctorate from the City University of New York and curating jobs from Fort Worth, Texas, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Colleagues say her knowledge of art and attention to detail stand out. When putting together an exhibition, she researches her subject meticulously, digging deep into an artist's life and work. But she is also just as careful to support those around her, to listen to their concerns and suggestions and pull together their ideas into a final product.
"She's doesn't have a killer ego. It's never about her. She's not trying to be famous," says David Park Curry, retired curator of American art at the BMA. "She's interested in ideas."
Ms. Bolger, 68, retired two years ago, but her legacy lives on, most obviously in the BMA's renovated American Wing, where masterpieces once housed in rather dingy circumstances are now lovingly displayed and explained. Today, the BMA is viewed as one of the most user-friendly venues of its kind on the East Coast. And, of course, Baltimoreans can drop in any time, Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and see it for themselves. "My hope is that Baltimore's job recruiters will take out-of-towners to the BMA to sell them on the city," Ms. Bolger says. "You can't have a great museum unless there's a great city outside its doors."
Born: Jan. 10, 1949, Far Rockaway, N.Y.
Education: Our Lady of Mercy Academy, Syosset, N.Y.; B.A. Bucknell University, 1971; M.A. University of Delaware, 1973; Ph.D. Graduate Center, City University of New York, 1983
Career: Field representative, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, N.C., 1973; research associate, assistant curator, associate curator and curator, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1976-1989; curator of paintings and sculpture, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1989-1994; director, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1994-1998; director, Baltimore Museum of Art, 1998-2015
Civic involvement: Member of the Station North Arts & Entertainment District board, 2010-present; member of the Charles Street Development Corporation board, 2008-present, executive committee, 2015-present; member of the Maryland Citizens for the Arts board, 2007-present, executive committee 2008-present, vice-chair and chair of the development committee, 2009-present; member of the Association of Art Museum Directors, 1995-2015; emeritus, 2016-present
Family: Two children, Maggie and Rusty Burke