Better to build now than wait, says BMA director, despite cutback in city funds THE BMA'S NEW ADDITION

April 19, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Although the Baltimore Museum of Art is embarking on a major expansion at a time when cutbacks in city funds have forced it to reduce staff and hours, its director says the museum must build a new wing to put it in a position to attract new gifts of art from collectors.

And it is better to build a new wing now than to wait, says director Arnold L. Lehman, who adds that the BMA has plans to cope with the increased financial demands it will have to meet, though he declines to specify what they are.

"It is least expensive to build the building, most expensive to enlarge the collection [by buying art]. If the building provides a lever to increase the collection [by gift], it will be an extremely prudent investment," Lehman says.

The new wing will more than triple the space, currently 5,300 square feet, for showing contemporary art, Mr. Lehman says, and will free up the present contemporary art spaces for the expanding decorative arts collection. "The largest increases in collections, in terms of numbers and scale, are in contemporary art and decorative arts. [Without the new wing] we would have absolutely no place to show this material, and potential donors are not keen on having things go into storage."

The new wing and attendant renovation of existing space will also provide more than 2,000 square feet of additional gallery space for showing prints, drawings and photography. The only space currently in the museum devoted exclusively to works on paper is the Vivian Benesch Gallery, about 400 square feet, for drawings only.

To put off construction to see what the economy does would lack vision and be impractical, too, Mr. Lehman says. "We have to make our own destiny. We cannot sit back and let destiny overtake us." And, he adds, "Sitting back [for a year or two] would cost us money. Construction costs would escalate again. We would have been better off [to build] a year ago at the bottom of the recession."

In addition, a new heating and air conditioning system for the whole museum complex will be installed with the new wing, and it is so cost-saving that it will reduce the museum's climate control costs by "over $50,000" annually, Mr. Lehman estimates.

The new wing, however, will increase the operating budget, now about $6.5 million, by "several hundred thousand dollars," the director says. When the city this fiscal year reduced its contribution to the museum by $240,000, the museum laid off six employees, reduced its days open from six to five and its hours open by about 20 percent, from 41 to 32. Should it now be taking on an added financial burden when future cutbacks in public funding are a real possibility?

Mr. Lehman points out that the city cutback this year was a sudden one that took the museum, as well as other cultural organizations, by surprise. He also points out that the museum has been consistently fiscally responsible in the past. "We have never had a deficit in the last dozen years, and we don't plan to have a deficit in the future."

Going into the 1980s, the museum had an operating budget of about $2 million, of which the city's contribution was about 70 percent, while the museum raised considerably less than $1 million. Now, the budget is about $6.5 million, of which the city and state provide about 47 percent, with the museum raising well over $3 million. In addition, the museum recently hired its first deputy director for development, Elspeth Udvarhelyi, and revamped its development office in order to "be more assertive in our approach to fund raising." The museum is "pursuing increased funding from corporate, private and foundation sources."

More specific than that, however, the director refuses to be. Mr. Lehman says there are long-range money-raising plans based on projections of what the budget will be after the new wing opens, and of how much of that money the museum will have to raise, but he insists they are none of the public's business.

"I am telling you that this museum operates on a long-range plan that is put together by our trustees and our staff and that we have revamped, reorganized and given a much higher profile to all the activities of the museum that relate to fund raising both for operation endowment and for capital, and that we have had an incredibly healthy and strong financial past and that we will continue to have an incredibly strong and healthy financial future. The sources of support and the percentages of that support might change, but we're moving into the 21st century stronger and more optimistic than ever," he says.

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