British are coming to BMA, artfully Exhibition: The Baltimore Museum of Art will display 255 art objects from a famous London museum for three months starting Oct. 12.

November 14, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Museum of Art will announce today its most ambitious and costly exhibition to date, an eclectic display of 255 art objects from the collections of London's renowned Victoria and Albert Museum.

The exhibition -- which includes paintings, sculptures, examples of high fashion and decorative arts -- will open Oct. 12, 1997.

It will remain at the BMA for three months before traveling to Boston, Toronto, Houston and San Francisco.

Visitors will be able to see part of the Victoria and Albert's vast holdings, a collection that is, in effect, a portrait of the British Empire and of the instinct for acquiring objects.

"We are going to be able to tell the story of what it means to be a museum and to describe the dynamics of collecting -- the tensions, the evolution of policy, the personalities," says Arnold Lehman, director of the BMA.

Lehman and Brenda Richardson, the BMA's deputy director, worked with the London museum to develop "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum," a show 10 years in the making.

It has a budget of roughly $5 million, most of which already has been raised by the BMA.

The exhibition will include many works never displayed in North America, ranging from Vivienne Westwood's blue, stacked mock-croc shoes and one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks to a Francois Boucher portrait of Madame de Pompadour and a Thomas Chippendale armchair.

"It is unique in the history of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the first time we have put together such a large exhibition," says Alan Borg, the museum's director.

"There is a strong intellectual concept behind it -- showing how the Victoria and Albert has influenced many museums throughout the world.

"But I wouldn't want it to be thought that this is a dry or intellectual exhibition. It's actually full of wonderful and exciting things."

The V&A is considered one of the world's great museums. It contains artworks and decorative items created over a span of 2,000 years and collected in the Near and Far East, Europe and North America.

It houses the principal collections in England of jewelry, apparel, silver, textiles, ironwork, prints, photographs, glass and ceramics. There's even a pair of 1991 Reebok trainers on display.

When it was founded in 1852, the museum's goal was to provide the public with examples of good industrial design, high style and excellent art.

With that in mind, its administration set out to collect with "an intelligent compulsiveness," Lehman says.

Badly designed objects also were collected, apparently the better to teach superior craftsmanship.

"They felt very confident about telling people what good and bad was," says Anne Poulet, curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the exhibition's first stop after Baltimore.

With its 7 1/2 miles of criss-crossing corridors and maze-like galleries that house about 4.3 million items from buttons to Buddhas, the V&A has been compared to an enormous attic.

But it is precisely that completeness that makes it an extraordinary museum, Lehman says. "It is a kind of dictionary of form, an encyclopedia of form," he explains. "Whatever you want to better understand -- sculpture, textiles, ceramics and so on -- they have it."

By studying how these collections were built, exhibition organizers hope to raise questions about how museums choose objects -- and to shed light on how they represent their own and other cultures.

"The history of collecting is a very important scholarly topic and one which lends itself to art exhibitions if you get the right objects and do it intelligently," says J. Carter Brown, director emeritus of the National Gallery of Art.

"It all depends on what kind of sense it makes, but I think it's a real feather in their caps."

The V&A is uniquely suited to such an examination, says Poulet.

"The V&A is a paradigm for a number of museums. So to examine how the V&A developed and how it impacted other museums is very important," she says.

"A Grand Design," whose principal corporate sponsors are Visa U.S.A. Inc. and Lockheed Martin Corp., will be divided into six thematic sections chosen to illustrate how the museum's collections were formed and how they evolved.

It will consider questions about the V&A's founding principles -- that the public will learn good design by viewing exemplary objects -- as well as different approaches to collecting, and the sometimes controversial idea of a great imperial power collecting colonial masterpieces.

The exhibition also will explore the value of collecting contemporary works -- an idea with which many museums still grapple today. Works in this section will include a 1918 armchair by Dutch designer Gerrit Rietveld and a Christian Lacroix evening dress from last year.

"This has been a tremendous undertaking for the museum," says Constance Caplan, chairman of the BMA's board.

"The unique thing about the V&A is that it is a wonderful treasure house -- it will be the kind of exhibition that everyone will be able to relate to. Everyone has some affection for at least one of the periods represented."

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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