In his foreword to Brenda Richardson's superb study of the Cone sisters, ''Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta,'' Baltimore Museum of Art director Arnold Lehman goes to some length to point out ''the pride and pleasure with which this museum houses the Cone Collection and preserves it for future generations.''
Trenchant irony isn't like Mr. Lehman, usually the most effervescently congenial of souls, but how else is one to take that ''pride and pleasure'' statement? For the sorry truth is that ever since the Cone Wing opened in 1957, the museum's curators have, in virtually continuous succession, treated the collection in a manner that can, with charity, only be called insulting.
And what a collection it is. Scores of paintings and sculptures, many of them true landmarks in art history, an astonishing array of decorative arts (textiles, furniture, rugs) and literally pounds of important support material (letters, sketches, notebooks) all put together by the sisters between, roughly, the presidencies of William McKinley and Harry Truman. When Dr. Claribel Cone died in 1929 she left it all to the BMA.
Superlatives often make one suspicious, yet the magnificence of the Cone Collection renders superlatives into simple statements of fact. In breadth and in depth it is one of the truly great collections of art in America, the glory not only of the Baltimore Museum of Art, but of the entire city and state. It is one of the few things Baltimoreans can, and do, point to with unallayed pride, for once casting aside our tiresome, self-deprecating modesty: any director of any museum in any city in the world would kill for ''The Blue Nude'' alone.
So how has the museum treated this priceless legacy? Certainly not with ''pride and pleasure.'' For unclear reasons, from the beginning, the BMA has chosen to ignore the sisters' own, well-documented approach to installation and has instead forced the paintings and sculpture to suffer 35 years of curatorial whims and fashion.
First off there was -- is -- the dreary mid-'50s Modernist gallery space itself. Lots of white walls and linear display may be fine for some art (how else would one display examples of abstract expressionism?) but they are all wrong for the Cone Collection. The sisters hung their paintings on deeply-hued walls, stacked in two or three rows and set off by rich textiles and ornate furniture.
As presented by the Cones, the pictures and sculpture created a moving, complex, almost sensual intellectual and physical interplay. As presented by the Baltimore Museum of Art, they look like bits of laundry flapping on the line. Thus the '50s installation not only patently violated the spirit of the collection, it actually diminished the impact of the paintings. That is no small statement, given the power of many of the canvasses.
Then there are those frames, those teeny metal minimalist bands that suddenly appeared -- poisonous mushrooms after a rain -- in the mid-'80s. Why have we suffered them all these years? Nobody likes them, nobody, not laymen, not other professionals. I've heard that when the paintings were lent to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts last fall, curators there insisted that the teensy-weensy frames be removed and the bold, original, Matisse-sanctioned frames be reinstalled.
When the pictures came back to Baltimore, why did the metal frames return, too? Writers for The Sun periodically raise that exact question. For example the Jan. 20 ''Gallimaufry'' complained that the minimalist frames ''detract and distract'' from the paintings' importance.
Now comes a new insult, one that is possibly worse than any of the others. Namely, the proposed new west wing and the glass pissoir that will connect it to the Cone Wing. Two intertwined dangers lurk here. The new wing and connection will trivialize the Cone Collection with a one-two punch.
First, as Ed Gunts pointed out in his April 19 review of the project, the architects have placed the new gallery adjacent the present building in a way that will perforce ''turn the prized Cone Wing into more a passageway to the new wing and less of a destination unto itself.'' Baltimore Museum of Art staff deny this, but how can it be otherwise? The new wing will not have an outside, public entrance; the only way to get there will be to traipse through the Cone Wing -- what better definition of a ''passageway'' could there be?
Then, and as if to ensure the horrible inevitability of it all, there's that pissoir: it's 1,000 square feet of sheer glass; it faces due south; it is bound to create a dazzling, neon-bright space, a supernova whose very incandescence will lure people from the darker Cone Wing. How can it be otherwise? One will enter the Cone Wing and immediately see this glow in the west -- who wouldn't instinctively be drawn to the light? Candles and moths come to mind.