The Contemporary returns

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It's been more than a year since the Contemporary Museum closed its doors in order to rethink its mission and reorganize its operations and staff. The economic downturn that began in 2008 hit Baltimore's most insistent institutional advocate for what a Sun critic once called "the art of right now" particularly hard, and its lingering effects eventually forced the museum to suspend exhibitions entirely and lay off its five-person staff in May 2012. There's been nothing quite like it since.

That's why a report last week that the Contemporary's board has found a way to resume operations later this year is exciting news. Baltimore's art scene benefited enormously from the creative energy and scrappy style the museum brought to the city in its previous incarnation, and we look forward to its return in its original form as a floating venue that goes wherever necessary to fulfill that vital role.


Since its opening in 1989, the Contemporary has pursued a militantly unconventional approach to the art of our time. For the first decade of its existence it had neither collections of artworks nor a dedicated gallery space in which to display them. Instead, it mounted adventurous, vagabond shows of borrowed artworks in some of the least likely venues imaginable, including a strip-mall storefront in Owings Mills, a vacant office building abutting The Block and a long-abandoned Greyhound bus garage in Mount Vernon.

What these venues lacked in the usual museum amenities — gift shops, restaurants, comfortable visitor restrooms — they more than made up for by the startling originality and forcefulness of the works they presented, which seemed deliberately chosen by museum co-directors George Ciscle and Lisa Corrin to challenge viewers' most basic assumptions about what it meant for something to be a work of art. Mr. Ciscle and Ms. Corrin were brilliant and tireless interpreters of the postmodern revolution that was then shaking the foundations of the art world, and their ideas influenced every other important visual arts venue in the city.


Soon, the Contemporary was mounting shows with them as well. In 1992, it collaborated with the Maryland Historical Society to present the groundbreaking "Mining the Museum" show by conceptual artist Fred Wilson, which examined the ways that African-Americans' experience had been excluded from traditional museum practices. Mr. Wilson's provocative and emotionally charged re-imaging of the historical society's collection of Maryland artworks and artifacts drew nationwide attention from critics and curators and put Baltimore on the map as a destination for cutting-edge cultural tourism.

A few years later the Contemporary was partnering with one of the city's most prestigious institutions, then known as the Walters Art Gallery, on "Going for Baroque," a supremely ambitious show that set out to trace the influence of the venerable 17th- and 18th-century Old Masters represented in the Walters' world-famous collection on the artists of today. That innovative exhibition was one of the first serous attempts anywhere to limn the continuities between the "old" art forms of traditional portraiture, history painting, landscape and still life with the raucous, in-your-face new visual rhetoric of the postmodern moment.

After its first decade, the Contemporary gradually evolved into a more familiar model. It incorporated the word "museum" into its name, an institutional designation it previously had strenuously resisted, and shed its homeless status for the predictability and security of permanent digs in part of an unused warehouse space owned by the Walters Art Museum at 100 W. Center St. There it mounted shows that continued to startle, delight and occasionally outrage visitors with the shocking notion that in the contemporary era artworks can look like anything, be made out of anything and mean whatever their viewers choose.

By turning received ideas on their head, the Contemporary was a catalyst for Baltimore's transformation from a once-sleepy provincial backwater to a bubbling caldron of artistic experimentation and innovation whose influence has touched every aspect of the city's cultural life — including its neighborhoods as young artist-entrepreneurs drawn by the excitement settle newly designated arts districts in Station North, Highlandtown and the west side of downtown. That's reason enough to welcome the Contemporary's return to its vagabond ways so that it can get back to the work that has served Baltimore so well.