It started as the most improbable of ideas:
To think someone could take the grimy old Greyhound service terminal at Park Avenue and Centre Street -- not the bus station itself but the garage next door, vacant since 1976 -- and transform it for even a short time into a Museum for Contemporary Arts was clearly carrying the idea of adaptive reuse further than it has been carried before, even in Baltimore.
Yes, thousands flocked to see the meticulous conversion of the Thomas-Jencks-Gladding mansion on Mount Vernon Place to an Asian Arts museum for the Walters Arts Gallery. But to imagine that people would feel comfortable standing in the non-air conditioned service bays of the old bus garage and be able to concentrate on the art inside was assuming local museumgoers have greater fortitude than they've shown heretofore.
Yet against all odds, this most unlikely of buildings has proven to be such a refreshing exhibit space and such a wonderful addition to the Mount Vernon neighborhood since it opened on a temporary basis in late May that the question simply must be asked: Has Baltimore's fledgling Museum for Contemporary Arts finally found a permanent home? Judging by this installation, an abandoned bus garage could be just the ticket for this upstart museum-with-moxie.
To be fair, the photography exhibit inside the former garage, Photo Manifesto: Contemporary Photography in the U.S.S.R.," was never supposed to last more than five weeks, and no one has come out and suggested that the building be used as a museum beyond that. The primary reason it was selected, according to museum director George Ciscle, is that it was appropriate for this specific show.
That decision reflects the mission of the two-year-old museum, which was formed to promote a better understanding of evolving contemporary art by presenting exhibits, performances, films and lectures that other local institutions might not. Its directors seek to provide a forum about contemporary art by going into the community and making it accessible to a diverse audience in unconventional ways. They believe that effective exhibitions depend as much on the choice of a site and method of installation as the artworks displayed.
Mr. Ciscle said that when the museum was established he
sought a permanent home for it, preferably near the Inner Harbor. But when he met with city officials to discuss the possibility of acquiring city property, he said, they encouraged him to mount temporary shows in various settings to demonstrate what he had in mind and to build support. Exhibits such as the one in the garage and one last December in the Famous Ballroom on Charles Street, he said, have been mounted in response to that suggestion, not with the idea of trying out these spaces as permanent homes.
The 25,000-square-foot bus garage happened to be availabl because it is part of a development parcel. Acquired by the city after Greyhound moved out in the mid-1980s, the land was awarded several years ago to a development partnership made up of Bacon and Co. and Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse. Since last fall they have been converting the bus station to offices for the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments, which will move in later this month. But they still had no definite plans for the garage when they showed it to Mr. Ciscle earlier this year. He said he knew as soon as he walked in the door that it was perfect for the photography exhibit. With support from the developers and the Schmoke administration, he arranged to
lease it on a temporary basis, free of charge.
Built in 1941 as a companion to the art moderne bus station, the garage hasn't been changed much inside or out to accommodate the museum. One enters on the west side, where the package handling area used to be, and proceeds to the grease pit where buses were repaired. Leaving the shell essentially untouched, the museum staff installed a series of metal partitions to mount the photographs and guide visitors through the building. They also set up a gift shop and reading area and displayed artifacts found inside the building, such as a cannon-sized fire extinguisher.