Historical society looks to future with new director

March 13, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Dennis Fiori is an outgoing 45-year-old with a rapid-fire manner of speaking in which ideas tumble over one another making their way into the world.

"I'm an eternal optimist," says the new director of the Maryland Historical Society.

He will bring that optimism to the new role he assumes tomorrow, taking over an institution that needs to expand -- and broaden its appeal -- in a tight economy.

Mr. Fiori comes to Baltimore from Massachusetts' Concord Museum, where he was instrumental in transforming that institution from a sleepy repository of decorative arts to a popular museum of the area's history.

"I think the most important thing is to end the 150th year with a master plan for the future," he says, establishing his No. 1 priority for the society, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

One of the most important issues Mr. Fiori faces is how to deal with the society's building complex, various parts of which are sorely in need of renovation, restoration and expansion. The complex consists of the historic 1840s Enoch Pratt House, the 1960s Thomas and Hugg building and two smaller additions -- and they wear like a too-tight, ill-fitting suit.

Various corrective plans have been proposed over the years.

"One concept may be to turn the Pratt house into more of a public facility," Mr. Fiori says, "with a cafe on the basement floor, children's exhibitions and a new museum shop. On the second floor, do the Pratt rooms over as first-rate period rooms. They're really beautiful rooms. Above them, start pulling together the executive offices, which are scattered everywhere."

Mr. Fiori thinks it might be possible to move and "invigorate" the complex's entrance with a courtyard, and create a spectacular gallery in existing space. "I would like to redo the old gallery that now houses the card catalog and rare books for the library into a beautiful public space . . . and have it available for functions."

He suggests "study storage" to address the problem with storage and gallery space.

"We obviously need more storage space and gallery space, and one thought -- since the decorative arts collection is so huge and so beautiful and so little is on exhibition -- is to look at the idea of study storage. . . . Rather than storing things behind closed doors, store them in such a way that the public can see what we have."

The "study storage" approach has been used at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery at Williamsburg and the Yale Center for British Art.

No matter how the buildings are reorganized, says Mr. Fiori, more space is needed. "The library probably needs to expand into the parking lot area. Whether we use the current galleries for storage and build new galleries, or redo the gallery spaces here and build new storage, depends on cost and feasibility."

Mr. Fiori also has ambitious hopes for widening the society's audience with a broader-based exhibitions program.

"The most important component we're lacking is we need

galleries for history," he says. "[The MHS] needs to establish itself as a statewide institution. I think one way to do that is to be known as the place you come to learn about Maryland's history."

The collections should be used as a way into the history of such subjects as land use, he says, not solely as aesthetic objects.

"A Maryland landscape exhibition would be a nice idea," he adds, "but to look at it not purely from the artistic point of view but from the point of view of what it teaches about changes in the land and the use of it. How man has affected [the land] and been affected by it. And view it across the spectrum of the state and not simply Baltimore."

Shows on such subjects, he suggests, "would include many voices and not just the great white man's perspective."

He also foresees possible exhibitions on such subjects as the history of sports in Maryland and of ethnic and religious groups, and shows pertaining to recent history. "The closer it is to our own time, the more fascinating the public finds the topic," he says.

In line with an expanded spectrum of exhibitions, collecting may broaden in scope, but without giving up the society's priorities.

"As far as collecting great 19th-century or earlier objects, we'll always collect those. But as you enlarge the collections you get more selective. You ask yourself if you need another sideboard or another squareback sofa," says Mr. Fiori. "If you bring in an object that lines up best in terms of quality, documentation and labeling, you may have to sell one off."

The expansions the new director foresees will cost money. To that end, the society's board plans to launch a major capital fund drive for facilities and endowment before the end of the year, though the amount is not yet decided.

One of the reasons Mr. Fiori was hired was for his fund-raising success at Concord, where there was a $3.7 million capital and endowment campaign, and the budget rose from $80,000 to $900,000 during his 12-year tenure.

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