Put a Wyeth on your wall, just check out a Pratt print BALTIMORE CITY

December 26, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Is the wall above your living room sofa naked?

If so, Andrew Wyeth is waiting for you on Cathedral Street.

Perhaps the halls of your humble home are a bit too sober.

Marc Chagall can make them sing.

For free.

In the fine arts department of the downtown Enoch Pratt Free Library rests a little known public service that is yours for the asking; an eclectic collection of more than 100 framed reproductions of art that can be borrowed one at a time for three months.

Some of it is magnificent, like a copy of El Greco's "View of Toledo," last borrowed in January 1991.

Some of it looks like shopping mall junk, such as "Dia or CF" by Victor Vasarely, a busy field of gold, copper and tan discs most recently taken out 12 months ago.

All of the paintings -- the Piscasos, the Eakins and the Monets, no matter how bright and animated originally -- look a little worn.

"All types of people borrow them," said Ellie Luchinsky, head of the Pratt fine arts and recreation department. "We get teachers who want to display art in class, students who are going to be in town temporarily and want to brighten their dorm rooms without spending money, older people who don't have much to spend at all, and business people who put together a revolving collection for their offices."

Most casual library-users, Ms. Luchinsky said, are surprised to discover that they can walk out with a pile of books under one arm and a painting under the other.

"They come in to get books on art or music and I find them staring at the paintings," she said. "If they look interested, I'll walk up and say: 'You know, you can borrow that.' "

The selection of paintings grew yearly after the service was established in the prosperity of the early 1960s by library staffer Eleanor M. Mason, now retired. Nothing new has been added since Ms. Luchinsky took over the cash-poor Pratt's fine arts department in 1990.

In fiscal 1990-1991, she said, the fine arts budget for new materials was $36,000. The next year it shrunk to $14,000, and this year the Pratt has about $9,000 to spend.

"When I had to start cutting the budget, the art was the first thing I cut. We'd been buying about eight a year. I guess they cost about $60 or $80 each then," Ms. Luchinsky said. "A lot of libraries have just stopped lending art because it's burdensome, but I like to keep it going. It lets people appreciate art in their homes who might not be able to without us."

Eleanor Mason said she started the service after coming to Baltimore from the Kalamazoo, Mich., public library, where it had been popular.

"We just bought things we thought people would like," said Ms. Mason, 70, who retired from the Pratt in 1966. "Anybody who wanted to could take something home and put it on their wall."

Among works the Pratt thought the public might like is "Vegetable Gardens" by Vincent van Gogh, "Don Manuel Osorio de Zuniga" by Goya, and "Number 27" by Jackson Pollock.

The last acquisition was "Goldfish" by Cheng-Khee Chee, which has gone unborrowed since September 1990.

The reproductions are coated with a protective film, in case folks spill coffee on a Gaugin or a baby tosses its bottle at a Dali. If a borrower is late getting the piece back to the Pratt after 12 weeks, the fine is $2 a day with a $50 maximum.

One elderly man showed up every three months to exchange one painting for another, systematically going through the entire collection. Not long ago, he passed away.

"We had a regular corps of people coming in who just wanted to change the images in their house," said Joan Stahl, who was in charge of fine arts at the Pratt from 1980 to 1990. "When I was head of the department, I tried to pick pieces by well-known artists but not the most well-known pieces."

With the Pratt's current budget problems, which have left some neighborhood branches like Govans closed for nearly three years, acquiring framed art work is a luxury, Ms. Stahl said.

"It was a small segment of our population that was using it and we didn't have the facilities to display it properly or promote it," she said. "With all of the library's other critical problems, I can't say that I think it's a priority."

But Ellie Luchinsky, the daughter of a portrait painter, is determined to keep the service alive, even if the prints are becoming dull and there's no immediate hope of buying new ones.

"If anybody would like to make a donation and designate it specifically for framed art, I would be delighted to purchase something," she said. "If people have framed reproductions to donate, I'll take them too."

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