BMA takes off with a new view for modern art in $10 million addition THE BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART Spreading its wings

October 02, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

When the Baltimore Museum of Art opens its spirited New Wing for Modern Art this month, visitors will discover a place that challenges them to understand some of the most provocative art of our era.

They will encounter paintings with a political agenda and works that touch their most personal memories. They will confront the wonder, rage, irony, confusion, and, yes, the beauty of life during the late 20th century. And they will contemplate what it means to be human.

The $10 million addition, which opens Oct. 16, will gradually transform Baltimore's largest fine arts museum.

It triples the space for the museum's collection of post-World War II art, making room for dozens of works -- including newly acquired paintings by Andy Warhol -- never seen before in Baltimore.

It will give new prominence to the museum's distinguished collections of American decorative arts, African art, and prints, drawings and photographs by allowing them to expand into areas previously devoted to offices and modern art.

And it may encourage more collectors and artists to loan or donate works for display in what is widely perceived as a gracious new center for contemporary art.

"I think the Baltimore Museum of Art has managed to create one ofthe country's most important centers for 20th-century art," says Evan Maurer, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

For many local arts supporters, the opening of the New Wing is generating a Camden Yards level of excitement.

"It will give form and focus to the most difficult and misunderstood art genre," says Sue Hess, president of Maryland Citizens for the Arts, the statewide arts advocacy group.

"Most important is what it will do to educate the community in contemporary art," says Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. "This region is still parochial as far as the art most people come into contact with. . . . This will provide a terrific resource."

The addition is expected to significantly boost attendance at the 80-year-old museum, which last year attracted 322,000 visitors. (They'll have an easier time finding the building now that the museum has finally put its name on its east wing. And another new sign identifies the visitors entrance.)

Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery, welcomes the BMA's New Wing as "another place for people to enjoy art." The Walters, where attendance roughly doubled after recent renovations and expansion, also stands to benefit from the excitement generated by the New Wing.

"There are a whole lot of people out there yet to be engaged in the art world," Mr. Vikan says. "The better the Baltimore Museum does in bringing in attendance, the better we do."

The BMA's new building, designed by Bower Lewis Thrower/Architects of Philadelphia, provides 16 galleries that are spacious yet retain a sense of intimacy through their thoughtful groupings of art. The walls are a warm gray, the floors are white ash. An innovative fluorescent lighting system protects paintings from any potentially damaging exposure to natural light.

Some of the dimensions are dramatic: The central gallery, which holds the Warhols, measures 50 feet by 50 feet. Many of the ceilings are 25 feet high. In the older buildings, ceiling heights tend to range from 12 to 17 feet.

Richard Oldenburg, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, says he is "enormously envious" of the BMA's expansion.

"Any museum that is actively collecting contemporary art faces the problem of having enough space," he says. "We show our contemporary collection in three or four re-installations every year because we don't have the space to have it permanently on view."

Like proud parents

Museum Director Arnold Lehman and Brenda Richardson, curator of Modern Painting and Sculpture, are presiding over preliminary tours like proud parents of the bride. Obviously thrilled, they are also apprehensive, exhausted, grateful and a bit choked up.

Dr. Lehman sounds anxious to play down the impact.

"We're not building the world's biggest new wing," he cautions. "We're not the largest museum in the United States, and we're certainly not the largest collection of contemporary art. What we have been able to do is to take a group of modest initiatives and put them all together into what I hope will be a new beginning for the museum."

More than half of the $10 million project was paid for by the state and city, the rest was raised privately. Major donors included the Kresge Foundation, Hazel Ann Fox, Constance R. Caplan, the Louis & Henrietta Blaustein Foundation and Henry & Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg Foundation, and Alex. Brown & Sons.

The addition should add about $500,000 a year to the museum's $9 million general operating costs, Dr. Lehman says.

It seems a small price to pay for such a wide-ranging transformation. The new construction is allowing the rest of the museum to be reconfigured and reorganized.

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