Frustrated artist denied access to his paintings in BMA Bequests hidden away in storage maze

November 03, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

It's not that Ralph McGuire expects to make a comeback as an artist, a big splash or anything like that.

All he wants is to get a grant from an unusual New York foundation set up to help established artists who never made a lot of money.

But before he can get the grant, Mr. McGuire needs access to hundreds of his own oil paintings and drawings that are in the vaults of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

But those precincts which were so receptive to him 46 years ago -- when he had a show in a gallery all to himself -- appear tightly closed to him today.

His pictures, along with thousands of works by other local artists, were bequeathed to the BMA by the late Baltimore collector J. Blankfard Martenet. But the public never sees these pictures and sculptures. They are rarely exhibited, and that has generated animosity between some local artists, their widows and other surviving family members, and the museum.

This animosity has festered for years, and occasionally flares into the open. At least two people with long-standing connections to the museum, and in possession of artistic material that would normally go to the BMA, have written the museum out of their wills.

One of them, who declined to give his name, said: "They have them [work by local artists] but they don't show them. They won't show local people.

"I will not leave them anything. My will is made out and I won't leave them a damn cent. Almost every artist in Baltimore has the same feeling."

Though Mr. McGuire is sympathetic to this attitude, his problem is much more specific.

To qualify for a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation -- set up in 1985 by artist Lee Krasner, wife of Jackson Pollock -- he has to produce representative slides of his work, photocopies of other pieces, an inventory of his long career. The aim would be to use the grant money to create a catalog, one with some commentary in it by an art historian, and possibly arrange for a retrospective show of his work.

The Pollock-Krasner grants have ranged from $1,000 to $30,000 in recent years.

In an attempt to make all this happen, Mr. McGuire and his wife, Tobia, said they have sent three letters to the BMA since last winter, the last one on Sept. 30. By the end of October, they had received no reply. The only response from the BMA was a postal receipt for the second letter, sent registered in July.

After a call to the museum from The Sun, Arnold Lehman, the director, said the July letter and his answer to it had been misplaced in his office.

"It sat in several gigantic piles on a table in my office waiting for action. I take complete responsibility for this," he said. "I can only say I pride myself in returning correspondence and telephone calls." He said the museum had no evidence of the other two McGuire letters.

His response to the McGuires' request is not encouraging.

"I don't know how we can do this," he said. "The registrar's office can't let the material out. This would take weeks. We can't just close up shop. We neither have the staff nor the resources to deal with this."

He continued: "This material is not exhibited, but it's in storage in a fashion it is hard to get to." A representative of the museum described much of the material from the Martenet bequest as "densely packed, not literally inaccessible, but practically so."

Said Mr. McGuire, "I expected as much. I haven't been holding out great hopes in that direction."

In his half-century of painting, Ralph McGuire never got rich, though at one time he cut a larger figure on the local art scene than he does today.

Starting in the early 1940s, his work was displayed regularly in Baltimore. He has shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, and studied at Washington's Phillips Gallery on a scholarship awarded by the Baltimore Museum of Art.

A dream show

A 1947 show at the BMA produced the kind of dizzying success nearly every artist dreams of.

"I felt like a man in the opera; I felt like singing all the time," Mr. McGuire recalled. "One who never had to work. I had enough money to live on for three or four years. I felt sort of carefree."

Once the euphoria passed, it was back to work. Mr. McGuire paints regularly, very slowly, with a palette knife and fine brush.

Today, he and his wife run a framing business on the third floor of a townhouse at 108 W. Mulberry Street, right behind the Enoch Pratt Central Library. They have been there since 1949. It has no display space, none of the polish offered by several other framers in the neighborhood. Mostly, the shop is jammed with tools of the framer's trade: saws, broad tables, angles and rulers.

But the shop is also decorated with dozens of Mr. McGuire's pictures: meticulous cityscapes, harbor scenes, paintings of large ships and many wood assemblages.

The 1947 show attracted the attention of Mr. Martenet, who was so impressed he bought every piece of art Mr. McGuire had produced. About ten years later he gave it all to the museum.

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