Vacant convent to house exhibit

URBAN LANDSCAPE

October 07, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

A vacant convent in Fells Point will become Baltimore's newest contemporary art museum later this month.

The St. Stanislaus Kostka Convent at 724 S. Ann St. will become the temporary home of an international exhibit, "Contemporary East European Ceramics." Baltimore is the second of four U.S. stops for the exhibit, which opens Oct. 24 and runs through Dec. 12. The display includes works by 73 artists from 15 countries.

The exhibit is being brought to the city through a collaboration of Baltimore Clayworks; the Maryland Institute College of Art; and the Contemporary, a 4-year-old roving museum that selects a different site for each exhibit it mounts.

George Ciscle, director of the Contemporary, said the three groups began looking last spring for a building to house the collection of more than 100 sculptures, ceramics and mixed-media works in clay.

Artists come from Poland, Russia, Hungary, Germany, the Czech Republic and other European countries. The work was created between 1985 and 1991, a time of social and political upheaval in the Eastern bloc. Much of the art has a humorous or biting edge that reflects the repressive conditions under which the artists lived.

Mr. Ciscle said the three-story convent, suggested by the East Baltimore Area Chamber of Commerce, turned out to be an ideal location because many nearby residents are of East European descent. "It's going to be a good fit" between the building and the art, he said. "Our first choice for a site always was East Baltimore. It's a community where this work is going to have particular relevance."

The exhibit will also show off the building, whose upper floors have never been opened to the public.

The convent stands next to St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, which was built in 1880 and enlarged between 1887 and 1895 to serve TC the growing number of Polish immigrants living in East Baltimore.

The convent was built in 1925 for the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph, who came from Hamburg, N.Y., to teach at the St. Stanislaus School on the same block. At one point, the convent housed 26 nuns who taught 1,200 students. But after the school merged with two others in 1989, the number of nuns dropped dramatically. The last four nuns were reassigned more than two years ago, leaving the convent vacant.

The building had been fully furnished before the conversion began last month, said Lisa Corrin, assistant director of the Contemporary. With beds neatly made upstairs and large easy chairs encircling a television set, she said, it was as if the nuns "went out for lunch and never came back."

St. Stanislaus was pleased to make the convent available, said the Rev. Maurice Piszczatowski, pastor. "It makes it easier for people from the neighborhood to come and view the exhibit. And it'll draw people here, which is good for us."

Father Piszczatowski said he hopes the exhibit will provide exposure for the building and elicit ideas for a long-term use. Church leaders don't want to sell, but they are eager to lease the building, he said. One group has proposed turning it into a Polish cultural heritage museum.

To give a flavor of the building's past, exhibitors are keeping some religious artifacts or pieces of furniture in every room. Part of the exhibit's power will come from the way these furnishings are juxtaposed with the East European art. Upstairs, one of the nun's bedrooms has been left intact to show the Spartan conditions under which they lived.

The Contemporary seeks out different sites for each installation to enable people to see works of art in new ways, Mr. Ciscle explained. "It's not just objects isolated in a gallery," he said. "It makes for a more special experience to see them like this." Because the exhibit is in a convent, some people may think it will be "very tame, very conservative," he said. "But I think when it's all done, it will have a unique feel . . . because of what the convent does to it."

Suburban estates

Possibilities for recycling historic suburban estates will be the focus of a lecture by architect Belinda Reeder of Archetype from 9:30 a.m. to noon Saturday at Dumbarton House, 300 Dumbarton Road in Baltimore County. Sponsored by Baltimore Heritage and the Baltimore County Historical Trust, the talk is the first of a four-part series, "Buildings Saved and Threatened: Baltimore Area Case Studies." Call 343-2358 for information.

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