The Secret Is Out 'Pandora's Box': Exhibit nearing end of run at the Walters is creating rare excitement, here and at venues to come.

January 03, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The exhibit "Pandora's Box: Women in Classical Greece," which ends its run at the Walters Art Gallery on Sunday, must be counted as one of Baltimore's most successful art shows, ever.

Critics have loved it. So have scholars. Attendance is expected to greatly exceed pre-opening estimates. Financially, there's a chance the show will come close to breaking even, a rarity for museum shows. Even the bulky catalog, weighing in at a hefty $39.95 for the paperback, has sold three times as many copies as the pre-exhibit estimate.

It all adds up to rare excitement about a rare show.

Organized by Ellen Reeder, Walters curator of ancient art, and slated to travel to Dallas and Basel, Switzerland, "Pandora" contains 136 works of Greek fifth century B.C. art from 54 public and private lenders in 14 countries. Among them are some of the finest works of art ever created.

But this is more than just a display of exquisite works. It is the first show to examine the life and condition of women in ancient Greece. In doing so, it departs from the traditional, purely stylistic approach to classical art. Instead, it brings to bear anthropology, sociology and psychology to discover what works art say about the times in which they were created.

Writing in Archaeology magazine, associate editor Angela M. H. Schuster called the show "a beautiful exhibition of well-known works of art that casts them in a new light." Writing in Minerva, the British magazine of ancient art, its editor-in-chief, Jerome M. Eisenberg, praised Dr. Reeder for "both a landmark exhibition and an outstanding catalog a finer overview of Greek womanhood does not exist." Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski called it a "beautiful and fascinating exhibition."

One measure of the show's ground-breaking significance is that two other important shows will follow its lead. Yale will open a show on women in ancient Rome next September, and the following month the Cincinnati Art Museum will open a show on women in ancient Egypt.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, praise from one's peers is probably the most appreciated. It has come in lavish doses to "Pandora" and Dr. Reeder.

David G. Mitten, professor of classical art and archaeology at Harvard University, called the exhibit "a joy to behold and an absolutely constant education." He also noted that its "superb catalog will be a lasting monument to this exhibition."

"I think this is a very timely exhibition, bringing a lot of new thinking about the ancient world into public focus," said Jack Kroll, classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "Even five years ago people would not have talked about Greek art in that way. It's hard to know whether it's an art exhibit or an exhibit about society."

"It's a whole new dimension," said Getzel Cohen, professor of classics at the University of Cincinnati. "I think one of the things Ellen has been able to do is reach out to a much larger constituency than if it were simply a retrospective collection of a particular 100 best pieces."

Evidence of that is provided by Rosetta Stith, director of the Baltimore school system's Paquin School for Expectant Teen-age Mothers. All the school's 300 students, ages 12 to 19, are seeing the show, class by class.

"Kids like history if they can relate," Dr. Stith said. And these students did relate to a time when young women married at 13 or 14 and were respected by the society as the givers of life. "They picked up on a point in time when motherhood was 'it,' " Dr. Stith said. "Everything else they get is negative."

Dr. Reeder said one of the compelling reasons many people came to the show was "a desire to elevate the self-esteem of teen-age girls. Teachers and parents are much taken by the presence, power and wonder that surrounded the young woman of 11 to 15 years. This positive message is one that a lot of adults are eager to communicate to teen-age girls -- and boys."

The curator also stresses the show's accessibility.

"People realize that they do not have to come to 'Pandora' with a body of knowledge under their belts." That's one of the reasons attendance has been so high.

Walters director Gary Vikan said "Pandora" had been expected to draw about 50,000 people. But with weekly attendance at an average of more than 7,600, the show is now projected to draw just under 70,000 for its nine-week run.

The financial picture is positive, too, Dr. Vikan said. Many people think museums make lots of money on big shows, but in truth, they hardly ever break even. And as an international show assembling from many sources some of the world's rarest pieces, "Pandora" is the most expensive kind of show to put on. It is expected to cost the Walters about $1.2 million, with 50 percent going to insurance and transportation of the pieces alone, another 10 percent for the catalog, 10 percent for installation, 8 percent for publicity and smaller amounts for various other expenses.

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