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Robert A. Zimmerman, retired Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit designer and social event planner, dies

Robert A. Zimmerman created the decorations for the 1989 inaugural ball for President George H.W. Bush.
Robert A. Zimmerman created the decorations for the 1989 inaugural ball for President George H.W. Bush.

Robert A. Zimmerman, a retired Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit designer and social event planner during his lengthy career in the arts scene, died of COVID-19 complications Monday at Good Samaritan Hospital. He was 83 and lived on North Charles Street.

Mr. Zimmerman also created the decorations for the 1989 inaugural ball in Washington, D.C., where President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, danced.

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Born in Towson and raised on Susquehanna Avenue and on Providence Road, he was the son of Clifton Zimmerman, a lieutenant in the Baltimore County Fire Department, and his wife, Cecelia Bosley, a homemaker.

He was a 1956 Towson High School graduate and then worked at the Bendix Corp. on East Joppa Road. When Bendix lost a government contract and a layoff followed, Mr. Zimmerman took his severance pay and enrolled at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He was later awarded a scholarship and earned an interior design degree at the school.

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Robert A. Zimmerman diplays a prize-winning needlepoint flame-stitch pillow in July 1973.
Robert A. Zimmerman diplays a prize-winning needlepoint flame-stitch pillow in July 1973. (HOTZ / Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Mr. Zimmerman later told friends he never forgot the help he received. As a result, he became a MICA benefactor and was honored for his gifts as a member of its Legacy Society.

“The guy had an unbelievable eye and sense of style, whether it was own artwork, his flower arrangements or his own art collection,” said Fred Lazarus, former MICA president .”He was also so generous about being there for others. He had an unbelievable spirit. He the absolute opposite of the temperamental artist.”

He interviewed for a job at the Baltimore Museum of Art and impressed the then-prints and drawings curator, Victor Carlson, with his knowledge of American art.

Mr. Zimmerman designed numerous BMA exhibits, including a popular 1967-1968 show, “Man in Sport,” another that featured indigo-dyed textiles, “Blue Traditions” in 1973, and a 1977 display of Native American art. He also helped mount the 1970 show “Vincent van Gogh, Paintings and Drawings.”

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Interested in needlecrafts and historic fabrics, Mr. Zimmerman won a prize at the Renaissance Stitchery Show in 1973 at the Sully Plantation in Chantilly, Virginia. In 2020 he donated a quilt he handmade to a Chase Brexton Health Care fundraiser. It was based on a crossword puzzle and employed squares of silk necktie fabric.

Zimmerman, left, and Father Bob Speer talk during a Chinese Language School celebration of the Lunar New Year in February 2002 at Grace and St. Peter's Church Parish House.
Zimmerman, left, and Father Bob Speer talk during a Chinese Language School celebration of the Lunar New Year in February 2002 at Grace and St. Peter's Church Parish House. (TIFFANY H. HOUSE / XX)

Mr. Zimmerman, through his associations at the museum, made friends among its patrons and administrators. He was soon asked to design weddings and floral pieces for their daughters’ weddings. He also did bar and bas mitzvahs and private parties.

He told friends he rarely had time to celebrate Thanksgiving because the next night was the Bachelors Cotillon and he and his staff needed time to decorate The Lyric, and later the 5th Regiment Armory, for the debutante ball.

He was tapped by the Republican Inaugural Committee to design the interior of the old Pension Building, now the National Building Museum, for the Bush inaugural event.

In a 1989 Evening Sun story, he said he “was dumbfounded” when he got that commission.

“I’ve done the Bachelors Cotillon, the Baltimore Assembly, the Hunt Ball, the Peabody Gala and the Whitney Museum Gala, but this is definitely the largest,” he said.

A poinsettia mantel designed by Zimmerman in his home.
A poinsettia mantel designed by Zimmerman in his home. (Algerina Perna)

He used 25 crates of smilax, honeysuckle-like vine, and cut flowers and white lights on a rush job that had to be ready in advance so the Secret Service could “sweep” the cavernous building to ensure its safety.

Mr. Zimmerman worked on a tight deadline assisting hundreds of Baltimore brides — and their mother — on weddings.

“He was like an uncle to me,” said Rosellen Bloomberg, a friend. “He was standing with me as I took my first steps down the aisle, and later helped with the centerpieces at my son’s bar mitzvah.”

Friends marveled at the speed with which he worked and his manner of arriving not long before an event, accompanied by helpers, and how he could transform a room.

He was later hired by the Walters Art Museum to oversee the rentals of its galleries for evening weddings after the institution closed.

Mr. Zimmerman restored a Victorian home on Mount Royal Terrace in Reservoir Hill. He later lived in Carney and about 20 years ago moved to the Highfield House in Tuscany-Canterbury. He was an officer on the condominium’s board.

“Bob brought a sense of art to our building, which is classic and modern. He made sure the building maintained its character,” said Robert W. Garnet,” a condominium neighbor and friend. " He was a strong advocate and was active in ensuring that. He was constantly undertaking projects that would enhance its provenance.”

Barbara White, who when living in Bolton Hill, recalled his work at her home for the annual Maryland House and Garden pilgrimage.

“He wanted to float gardenias in the bathtub. We compromised with putting them in some nice vases,” Ms. White said.

Another friend, Asylynne Wright, said: “His heart was a light and he loved beauty in all forms. He was a major part of the MICA community as an artist and alumnus. He was gregarious and [had] a wealth of knowledge. He had amazing taste in art.”

Mr. Zimmerman was also an accomplished baker, and made numerous holiday season fruitcakes based on his mother’s recipe. He was a collector of antique sewing devices, including a type of pincushion known as a puzzle ball.

A memorial fund, the Zimmerman Family Scholarship Fund, has been created in his memory at MICA.

Graveside services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Woodlawn Cemetery. Plans for a memorial gathering are incomplete.

Survivors include cousins, nieces and nephews.

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