Gallery was where art met business Baltimore Life closing suburban site today

February 06, 1997|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

It was a splash of culture against a suburban backdrop of mall shopping and townhouse living. It was a place for local artists to show and, even better, sell their works.

It was extraordinary in Maryland -- a public art gallery housed and sponsored by a major corporation -- and it closes at the end of business today.

"Friday, we take it down," George Fondersmith, director of the Baltimore Life Gallery, said yesterday as he walked the line of quilts that made up the Owings Mills gallery's final show. "We'll be admiring the blank walls."

After 13 years of inviting artists and art lovers into its headquarters -- first on Howard Street, in Baltimore's cultural hub, and later amid the grass and trees of an office park -- Baltimore Life Insurance Co. is closing the show.

Baltimore painter Dean Larson, who had a one-man show at the gallery, said, "It's a terrible loss to the community because it was one of the few, if not the very few, galleries that offered local artists an opportunity to show without charging a hefty commission on any sales."

L. John Pearson, Baltimore Life's president since August, said it was a great run but that the time had come for the company to explore new ideas, including different directions in its philanthropy.

"There's no doubt there is a loss," Pearson said. "I don't mean to sound callous, but we felt it was the right time to move on and venture into a different area.

"I'm the new CEO and the one who's the driver behind an awful lot of the change, and this is a piece of it. I'm glad to take whatever, if there is any heat at all."

Pearson declined to disclose the gallery's cost to the company, but he said Fondersmith's estimate of $70,000 a year was not off by much.

Baltimore Life hopes to enlist a charitable organization to handle its contributions to the community, Pearson said.

Artifacts from the company's long history will be displayed on the gallery walls.

Fondersmith, then the company's advertising and communications director, founded the gallery in 1983.

Besides waiving commissions on sales, it underwrote the glossy invitations that lured prospective buyers. The gallery also threw swank receptions for show openings, with tables of food and a string quartet.

Back then, the company was on Howard Street, a short distance from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the Maryland Institute, College of Art. When the company moved to Owings Mills Corporate Campus in 1993, the gallery went with it.

The move meant fewer artists wandering in, but patrons managed to find the gallery, Fonder-smith said. "There are just fewer creators -- and more acquirers," he said.

In the Owings Mills building, artwork is hung along a gently curving, fabric-covered wall. The opposite wall is paneled with wood.

The corridor ends with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a courtyard and a pond. Nearby stairs lead down to another art-lined corridor.

Over the years, the gallery has displayed a range of styles from local and regional artists, along with African art from private collections.

In August, a show was canceled after employee complaints prompted the removal of computer-generated art depicting female nudes. Some artists decried the "censorship." Pearson said yesterday that the "unfortunate incident" had no bearing on the gallery's closing.

Last show featured quilts

The last show, "Treasured Threads," featured quilts by local artists.

Fondersmith hopes the gallery can find a new home.

"I'm offering the concept and my years of experience to another company," he said. "There are several companies considering it."

But as the end neared for the gallery at Baltimore Life, artists and employees lamented the closing.

Scott Huber, a computer network administrator who has been with Baltimore Life for 12 years, passed by a row of quilts on his way back from the cafeteria. Gazing at the artwork helped employees recharge their batteries in ways that coffee never can, he said.

'A brain break'

"It's a brain break during the day," he said.

Huber, a photographer who has sold prints through employee shows at the gallery, said the gallery provided a lift when one show closed and another opened.

"Most people would forget it was going to be changed over the weekend," he said, "You would walk in on a Monday morning, and it was like 'wow!' "

"It's really flourished for quite some time," said Will Wilson, a Baltimore-born painter whose works have been displayed throughout the nation and at one-man shows at the Baltimore Life Gallery. "It's a shame to have it end."

Pub Date: 2/06/97

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