The LEHMAN LEGACY Analysis: The departing director has led the Baltimore Museum of Art to major growth in finances, attendance and prestige.

March 18, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

After Arnold Lehman leaves the Baltimore Museum of Art, where he's been director for the last 18 years, we may find we miss him more than we expected to.

It's quite possible that someone in, say, 2050, looking back on the Lehman period, will see it as one of remarkable and consistent achievement on many fronts, including collections, exhibitions, finances, audience, facilities, staff and education.

But at present, as Lehman prepares to leave in September to become director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the BMA has an image problem. It is often perceived as an institution aloof, arrogant and uncaring, devoted to its own agenda and unresponsive to the community.

When you think about the accomplishments of the Lehman years, there's much of the positive to accentuate.

The museum more than doubled in size by adding two wings and two sculpture gardens. It also more than doubled its attendance, from 150,000 to 350,000.

There were numerous significant shows:

* "Oskar Schlemmer" (1986) devoted to the early 20th century German modernist, was organized by Lehman and BMA deputy director for art Brenda Richardson and traveled internationally.

* "Gilbert and George" (1984) brought to Baltimore the work of two leading British contemporary artists.

* "Robert Colescott" (1988) presented a retrospective of a major African American artist.

* "Classical Taste in America" (1993) brought together a striking assemblage of American decorative arts.

* "The Face of America: Modernist Art from the Collection 1910-1950" (1996) showed how the museum's own collection could be used in a highly imaginative way.

* "Art of the Baga" (1997) presented this African art in depth for the first time anywhere.

* The coming "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum" (opening Oct. 12) will present, for the first time, an American tour of a comprehensive look at the great British institution.

Creative swapping

In 1991, the BMA initiated a creative swap of collections. A selection from the BMA's Cone collection went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and major Monets came to Baltimore from Boston. Subsequently, "Picture Perfect" (1992) brought Baltimore masterpieces of modern art from Cezanne and van Gogh to Edward Hopper and Jackson Pollock in return for major loans to MOMA's huge Matisse show.

The most important part of a museum is its collections, and Lehman has increased the BMA's by acquiring the Levi collection of contemporary sculpture, the Scott collection of American furniture, the Dalsheimer collection of photographs and the Lucas collection of 19th century art. (The Dalsheimer and Lucas purchases involved creative funding initiatives in partnership with the city and state.) The purchase of 18 works by Andy Warhol gave the BMA one of the largest Warhol holdings anywhere.

But there are other, less public ways the museum has moved forward in the Lehman era. Curatorial and conservation staffs have increased. Grants have been obtained for major education initiatives aimed at city school children and inner city neighborhoods. The endowment is more than 30 times what it was in 1979, when Lehman arrived: $48.5 million compared to $1.5 million. Budgets have increased dramatically, too, from less than $2 million to $9 million.

But the real budget story is Lehman's continuing success in obtaining government money in a time when some government support for the arts is shrinking. True, the city chips in a smaller percentage of the budget than it used to. But if you turn those percentages into dollars, you find the city's contribution has grown from $1.25 million to $2.9 million, and other government grants have grown from $216,000 to about $800,000.

Of course the part of the budget that must come from the private sector has increased enormously -- from 19 percent in 1979 to 58 percent now, or from $342,000 to $5.2 million. But fund-raising has kept pace. The museum does not operate in the red.

The criticisms

Against these accomplishments there are legitimate criticisms of the Lehman years. The museum's relationship with local artists is poor. First it dropped the regional biennial, then it dropped the annual (and much smaller) Maryland Invitational in favor of sporadic shows devoted to local artists. It also closed the sales and rental gallery which showed both regional and national artists. All contributed to the perception of the museum as aloof, arrogant and uncaring.

The replacement of handsome period frames on the Cone collection's Matisse paintings with thin strip frames continues to annoy many. Whatever arguments can be made in favor of the latter, many museum goers felt that the period frames made the Matisse installation more welcoming. By keeping the metal frames, the museum reinforces the perception that it doesn't care what people think.

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