Taking the message to people on street Art: Contemporary director Gary Sangster says his job is to fix the public perception of snobbiness.

December 10, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

As the new executive director of The Contemporary, Gary Sangster looks forward to mounting ambitious shows, increasing income and raising the institution's visibility -- all in the cause of making contemporary art relevant to people. Not over their heads or beneath their notice, but right where they are.

"I'm interested in the power and meaning of contemporary art and how exhibitions can help people understand it," says the new head of Baltimore's museum without walls. "The really big picture is to transform the public's attitude toward contemporary art. The public is disdainful and condescending toward contemporary art. We want to show that contemporary artists are intellectually and ethically engaged in discussion about the time we live in."

And art is not just for the few, either. "I am interested in providing access for people. I am interested in giving a dimension of pleasure and fulfillment that a good museum can provide an audience," he says. "I am in favor of good, clear writing about contemporary art. I am not interested in exclusivity or jargon. And I am not interested in didactic art that preaches a message. I am interested in art that contains a message, albeit in metaphorical form."

Sangster, a 43-year-old art curator and administrator, hails from Australia and has been engaged with contemporary art from New Zealand to New Jersey. He is only the second director of The Contemporary, which he joined in July. Tonight he will talk about the institution's future as part of a public tribute in Fells Point to its founder and first director, George Ciscle.

Since its debut seven years ago, The Contemporary has mounted significant shows at local museums and other venues that have addressed contemporary art in wider cultural and social contexts. "Mining the Museum," at the Maryland Historical Society, was New York artist Fred Wilson's exploration of how African Americans have been overlooked in our cultural history. "Going for Baroque," at the Walters Art Gallery, addressed parallels between contemporary and baroque art. The current "Aboard the Cyberclipper," at the Columbus Center, explores art and communication in the age of the Internet.

The future holds more of such innovative projects. "The next show, opening in April, is a traveling show called 'Too Jewish?: Challenging Traditional Identities,' " Sangster says. "In my first year here, we wanted to have a show that we weren't responsible for initiating." Organized by the Jewish Museum, New York, it's now in San Francisco and will then travel to Los Angeles, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Vienna.

"It's art by younger Jewish artists, under 40, dealing with Jewish identity in the post-Holocaust world," Sangster says. "We've been working with the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, and we're trying to find a location for the show that has some connection with the history of Jewish neighborhoods in Baltimore city or county."

Among other upcoming projects, he says, Contemporary curator Lisa Corrin is working on a show in which three artists will address environmental changes. "And I want to do a show on the archaeology of knowledge," he says. "How art expresses similar knowledge bases, but in different ways in different places, in order to explore what underlies the discussion about multiculturalism."

But the most ambitious project on the horizon is none of the above. "It will be a historical survey show, dealing with the impact of the influence of feminism on postwar culture and institutions. It will explore the driving force of feminism on the development of contemporary thinking and cultural experience, dealing with such aspects of the culture as popular culture, academic institutions and business and industry, with art as the central visual core."

Planned to include many artists and to debut sometime in 1998, the show is expected to cost up to $500,000, considerably more than the current annual budget of $360,000. Plans are to raise the money over a three-year period. "For a large-scale history exhibit, that is not a lot of money," he says, "but it's an enormous amount of money for us, about five times larger than any other project we've been involved in." He recognizes that it might not be possible to do it on the scale envisaged.

"If it is not fully funded, then we will have to scale back. If there is enough interest and it's compelling enough, it's worth waiting for. But clearly some projects will in the end not be doable, and we have to be mature enough to recognize that."

One of Sangster's major responsibilities as The Contemporary's chief administrator is fund-raising, and he believes in realistic growth. He envisions budgets rising modestly in the next couple of years, to perhaps $380,000 and $400,000. That includes a gradual increase in the current base level of about $250,000 for operating expenses, plus funding for specific shows. "Some shows cost very little, so we can spend time generating funding for others," he says.

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