Little museum that Baltimore forgot

June 15, 1995|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

The city's oldest museum devoted to African-American arts and culture stands staid, stoic and mostly ignored in two adjoining East Baltimore rowhouses.

Each day, thousands of pedestrians and motorists come within a brush stroke of the museum on Carswell Street near Clifton Park, where more than 600 works by regional black artists are displayed. But few enter the museum, which is called "Baltimore's Only Black American Museum."

Berkeley Thompson, a writer who founded the museum in 1968 and is its curator, said that although the museum struggles to stay open, it remains an important institution for the city's black community.

"This is where a lot of artists who couldn't and can't get displayed come to show their works," Mr. Thompson said yesterday. "It's about culture, black culture, and it's important that black cultural institutions be in our communities."

Inside, the walls are covered with colorful African paintings, masks and trinkets. Statues and artifacts crowd the floor and spill out onto a second-floor porch and ground-floor patio.

"We're talking about the black cultural experience. Black culture is a very significant part of American culture," Mr. Thompson said. "All of the facets that define us as a people of culture are here."

Abu, a musical instrument maker who often performs for children's groups at the museum, said the museum should give the city's youths an alternative to running the streets. "People don't have hobbies and instead do foolish things when they could come inside and learn about their culture," said Abu, a Muslim whose one-word name means "father" in Arabic. "People would come here if we get into their heads that it's a hip thing to do."

The museum began in 1968, shortly after the riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., when a group of black student artists sought a place to display their collection.

"We were, I guess, black beatniks," Mr. Thompson said. "We were a result of the tanks going up and down Harford Road in the riots. We were angry but we knew how to act."

The museum was first housed near Druid Hill Park in West Baltimore and moved to Carswell Street in 1970.

Over the years, art exhibits, recitals, plays and readings from local black artists and internationally known artists such as the poet Nikki Giovanni have taken place in the museum. About 15 artists regularly display there.

However, the museum has faced lean times of late, and earlier this year was sold at a tax auction. The museum must pay more than $6,000 to its purchaser to avoid foreclosure, which could occur at any time. The museum is tax-exempt but receives no funding from the city.

Mr. Thompson, the museum's only full-time employee and one of three paid workers, said the museum raises money from memberships, large group tours and commissions on the sale of artwork. The museum also holds fund-raisers.

"It kind of hurts. We shouldn't have to be going through anything like this," he said. "We're a part of the history of art in this city. We should have people knocking down the door to get in."

James Backas, executive director of the Maryland State Arts Council, said the museum might be eligible for a grant if it applied. About 250 organizations statewide receive grants by the council.

Jane Vallery-Davis, director of development and public relations for the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Arts and Culture, said the museum might also be eligible for a grant from the city.

Mr. Thompson said he has not applied for grants in recent years, but plans to apply in the coming months.

Some artists who use the museum said that because there are so few visitors, it's futile to display their works there in hopes of selling them.

"I'm practically ignored here," James Earl Reid, a sculptor, said yesterday from the building's second floor, where one of his works was displayed.

In the museum's Clifton Park community, some residents said yesterday they were unaware a museum was there. "I thought it was a meeting hall or a party house," said Cathy Ruskin, who has lived in the area nearly 20 years.

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