Museum promotes art of stewardship BMA Exhibit and fair aim to imprint on people the joys of collecting.

April 14, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Museums collect. People collect. Museums, and their communities, benefit in major ways from what people have collected. Think of Walters, think of Cone. And people who might want to collect benefit from seeing what museums have collected. That's pointedly the case at the Baltimore Museum of Art this month.

On Wednesday, the BMA will open the exhibit "A Decade of Print Acquisitions, 1985-1995," which will bring together more than 120 prints from the mid-15th to the late 20th century, a selection from the 500 or so works the museum has added in the last decade to its vast holdings of about 80,000 prints.

It's no coincidence that the last weekend in April will also see the annual "Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair," a show and sale of prints brought to the museum by 20 leading dealers in contemporary prints. The fair offers a chance to have a dialogue with dealers as well as the museum's curators. It's a dialogue available to those who go to buy, and equally to those who only go to learn.

Leading up to the fair, the "Print Acquisitions" exhibit provides a good opportunity for those who might be interested in collecting prints to see a wide variety of works in many periods and styles, and to discover -- if they don't know already -- what it is they respond to.

Across the centuries from near and far the works call to us, and to one another, too. Often art of different eras, from artists of different backgrounds, will be related not only in subject matter but in what they reveal about the subject matter. One of the museum's most notable acquisitions of the decade is "Woman at the Bath with a Hat beside Her" (1658) by Rembrandt, one of the most acute recorders of the human spirit.

In the expression of both her face and her body, Rembrandt's woman projects a stoic acceptance of life and of her place in it. Almost three centuries later, the woman in Edward Hopper's "Evening Wind" (1921) possesses a sense of loneliness, of what the the museum's label calls "a longing for someone or something." Still another woman, in Elizabeth Catlett's "For Colored Only" (1946) reveals a mix of qualities: both vulnerability and strength, both anger and humor. Still later, Laurie Simmons' untitled print from the series "Ventriloquism" (1986) shows us not a real face at all but only a ventriloquist's dummy; but somehow in the way the artist has captured this face there's something sly and menacing about it that also reflects an aspect of the human equation.

The museum buys across such a broad spectrum of art history because when you already house 80,000 prints and drawings it's more a question of tuning than of building. "There is a process of refinement of the collection," says curator of prints, drawings and photographs Jay M. Fisher. "We're filling in gaps, seeing what we need for a broader art history representation, and finer examples."

One area of 20th century collecting in which the museum seeks to strengthen its representation is African American works. Recent purchases include the Catlett as well as works by Hughie Lee-Smith, Alison Saar, Jacob Lawrence and others.

Similarly, says associate curator Jan Howard, "We don't have a very important representation of pop art and pop artists." Thus the recent purchase of Roy Lichtenstein's "Sweet Dreams, Baby!" (1965), a major print by one of the leading pop artists.

Enriched by gifts

Aside from the museum's own purchases, the collection continues to be enriched by gifts from collectors, such as the late Winifred Gordon's gift in 1994 of Mary Cassatt's "The Banjo Lesson," and Elizabeth Hirsh's gift in the same year of Whistler's early etching "Reading by Lamplight" (1858).

The prospect of such gifts acts as a strong incentive for the museum to encourage collecting, and the annual print fair is one of the principal means of encouragement. Both the museum's curators, who are on the floor during the weekend event, and dealers who bring their art to the fair emphasize that people needn't think they have to buy -- they can just come to the fair and ask questions. "It's a comfortable place to look at prints, and the dealers are willing to talk," says Howard. "It's an educational experience."

Tara Reddi, head of the print department at New York's Marlborough Gallery and one of this year's print fair dealers, agrees. In fact, she goes so far as to say, "I don't think people should be impulse buyers. They should do research, go to galleries, and auction galleries as well. Look and ask a lot of questions. Looking is really the key to anything you do. Part of my job is to talk to people sometimes two years in a row and nothing happens. Then someone comes in interested in acquiring something. It takes time."

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