Walters wing defects pose art threat

February 28, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

The 1974 wing of Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery has so many defects that administrators want to close significant portions temporarily for repairs to protect the priceless art inside.

Problems at the city-owned building include a climate-control system that does not maintain the steady temperature and humidity levels needed to preserve works of art, and ceiling-mounted "reheater" coils that sometimes drip water and oil on the floor below.

Administrators also say the building's fire and security systems are not up to current museum standards, the front entrance is not sufficiently accessible to the disabled, the main entrance needs an air lock and the structure is showing "signs of stress."

The collections housed in the 1974 building are among the Walters' greatest strengths, including its Egyptian, Greek and Roman works and its medieval and Islamic art.

To help pay for repairs to the building and reinstalling the collection, a two-step process that is expected to cost $6 million, the museum is seeking $1.5 million from the legislature this spring.

City voters will be asked to approve another $750,000 as part of a bond issue for cultural institutions that will be on the ballot in November.

Additional money will be sought from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from private donors in a fund-raising campaign later this year.

If the required funds come through in time, work would begin in early 1995 and be completed by mid-1996.

The 20-year-old building "contains the best of the art that we have to offer, the heart of our collection," chief curator Gary Vikan told legislators in Annapolis last week. But "the building is not well. What we are talking about is making it safe for the art and making it stable for the future."

During a recent tour of the five-story building, Mr. Vikan said the fluctuating temperature and humidity levels are due in part to the absence of an air lock at the Centre Street entrance.

With one set of doors opening and closing all day -- 700 hours a year -- too much cold, dry air gets into the galleries during the winter and too much warm, humid air gets in during the summer, he explained.

During last month's cold spell, he said, the wind-chill factor made the temperature in some galleries feel like 30 degrees, even though heat was pouring out of the ceiling at a temperature of 100 degrees.

That is unacceptable because fragile art needs to be in a completely controlled climate, he said. "Works of art, especially if they are made of canvas and wood, are a lot like people," he said. "They can't be exposed to the elements 700 hours a year."

The numerous reheater coils in the gallery ceilings also are a major concern, Mr. Vikan said. "It was a flawed idea to begin with. Any time you have coils over works of art, it's not a good situation."

No art yet damaged

So far, no art has been damaged as a result of the building's problems, but it could be unless preventive action is taken soon, said acting director Kate Sellers.

"I would not call these repairs emergency in nature," she said. "It's deferred maintenance. We've put it off for a long time. The building is 20 years old now, and it needs considerable refurbishment."

Located at the northeast corner of Centre and Cathedral streets, the building is one of several occupied by the Walters.

Other buildings include the main gallery at 600 N. Charles St., built in 1904; Hackerman House, a museum of Asian art at 1 W. Mount Vernon Place; and the administrative offices at 5 W. Mount Vernon Place.

In addition to the permanent exhibits that span the period from 3000 B.C. to the 19th century, the 1974 building contains an auditorium, gift shop, space for temporary exhibits and fifth-floor offices for museum staff.

The proposed renovation work will include converting the building from steam heat to a hot water system, moving "reheater boxes" now located in the ceilings over art work into the basement and stacked "reheater closets," and upgrading the fire and security systems.

Walls to be moved

The work will also involve moving some exterior glass walls to seal off the museum from outside air more effectively and prevent built-up condensation on the windows; installing double-paned and filtered glass to block glare in some galleries; redesigning the Centre Street entrance so it has two sets of doors and a ramp less steep than the current one for visitors in wheelchairs; and making structural repairs to the building where needed.

In conjunction with the repair work, Mr. Vikan said, the staff wants to reinstall the art to make it more accessible and take advantage of new computer technology.

For example, instead of displaying knights' armor primarily as examples of craftsmanship, he said, the museum could reinstall it in a way that tells more of a story about knights themselves and how they lived in the Middle Ages.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.