Museum would drop designs for $7 million addition if Power Plant plan comes true

October 24, 1990|By John Dorsey and Edward Gunts

The Baltimore Museum of Art would scrap its plans to build a $7 million addition for 20th century art if its proposal to open an Inner Harbor branch in the Power Plant on Pier 4 is realized.

Instead, the museum would use city and state monies earmarked for the new wing to convert most of the harbor building to a center for its contemporary art collection and traveling exhibitions, according to a proposal submitted to the city.

The plan is one of seven that will be reviewed by a panel appointed by Center City-Inner Harbor Development Inc., which made them available to reporters this week. No time line for the panel's decision has been announced, and officials for the downtown development agency could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Bower Lewis Thrower/Architects of Philadelphia, which has designed the proposed wing, would be architects of the Power Plant project, according to the proposal, which calls for construction to begin in 1991 and be completed in about two years.

BMA director Arnold L. Lehman emphasized yesterday that the museum has not abandoned plans for the wing at Art Museum Drive, a construction date for which has not been set.

"Both projects cannot be done," he said, "but this should not be construed as giving up on [the wing on] Art Museum Drive. If anything the Art Museum Drive wing is still a stronger argument because we know so much more about it. The Power Plant concept is very much filled with unknowns for us, and we make it clear that there needs to be a period of feasibility and market study, and more study in design and financial pro formas. But it also has its own merits."

He described those merits as "bringing the museum into contact with a wider audience" and "benefiting from an audience that is established already for other cultural and scientific attractions in the harbor." In addition, he said, "the buildings themselves have an attraction as a handsome open space."

A contemporary center at the Power Plant would also ease the museum's problem of limited land on which to expand at the Art Museum Drive location.

Components of the harbor project would include 20,000 squar feet for contemporary arts exhibition space; 10,000 square feet for showing international traveling exhibitions; 10,000 square feet for a combination of space for commercial art galleries, a museum shop and cafe; 4,000 square feet for educational programs.

The proposal anticipates 300,000 visitors the first year to the facility. Annual operating costs are projected at approximately $2.2 million a year, and Lehman said "the intention is that it would support itself and that a very substantial portion of that support would come from admissions," with a suggested $4 initial admission charge. Other support would come from shop, cafe, rental of space to galleries and obtaining sponsorship of exhibitions as at the museum.

If the plan is approved, the museum would transfer its post-World War II art to the contemporary arts exhibition space. Examples of the type of traveling show that might be seen at the Power Plant include recent Dr. Seuss and Henry Moore exhibits as well as such upcoming shows as Monet and animation art. Evening hours at the Power plant and a shuttle bus between the Inner Harbor site and main museum in North Baltimore are projected.

Lehman said he did not think the opening of such a museum branch would signal a more popular approach to art by the BMA. "I don't think we are looking at increased commercialization or popularity," he said.

But he did note a downside to the Power Plant proposal. "Removing the continuum of a collection is a very serious matter and we have to continue to study it," he said. "It becomes much more difficult for us in terms of manpower, much more costly to duplicate staff, and to manage an additional staff. There are vast unknown issues regarding the existing buildings and their mechanical systems and the cost of operating those, and we have no knowledge of the logistics of operating in downtown Baltimore."

He also said the museum would have to negotiate with the city the length of time it would have the Power Plant. "My assumption is that anyone would want to go into it for the longest period."

The proposal notes that transferring funds from the museum wing to the Power Plant project would require approval by the state and the city. The former has already approved nearly $2.4 million and the latter $1.5 million for the wing; the museum plans to ask the state for just over $1 million more next year.

Lehman said he did not think the Power Plant idea would duplicate or be in conflict with a center for contemporary arts already proposed for another downtown location by art dealer and former gallery owner George Ciscle.

"As far as I understood it they were talking about little-known artists and very experimental artists. We did not take that proposal into account when doing this. I don't think they have anything to do with one another."

Ciscle could not be reached for comment.

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