In 1991, the Contemporary Museum had put on just one exhibit and was planning its second, a show of photography from the Soviet Union. It was to be installed in the deserted shell of a former Greyhound bus garage, which meant that, among much else, chief curator Lisa Graziose Corrin had to get movable walls on which to hang the art.
The walls the show needed weren't made in Baltimore, where Corrin could have counted on community spirit and maybe an entree to the company. They were made in New Orleans.
"My job," she says, "was to pick up the phone and call New Orleans and say we want them for free, we want you to deliver them to our door and we're not paying for any of this. At that point we had done nothing but a mail-in art show on AIDS. So how do you convince them that this museum that doesn't exist should be given $20,000 worth of services?"
But she did convince them, just as she has convinced a lot of other people in the past eight years: with a combination of formidable intelligence, unbounded enthusiasm, skill in argument and total commitment to the mission.
That combination has helped Corrin to be a major player in making the Contemporary internationally recognized during its brief history. When she leaves this week for a curatorial position in London, she will leave behind an institution whose growth she has contributed to in many ways.
She's done the curator's job of organizing shows and writing catalogs to accompany them, but she's also been the Contemporary's education department and its writer of grant proposals. And she's perfected the art of talking people into doing what the Contemporary needs done and giving what the '' Contemporary needs given -- especially in the early days when it needed just about everything.
"I raised a quarter of a million dollars in in-kind donations the first year I was at the Contemporary," she remembers. "I was literally going to the art supply stores and saying, 'We can't even afford rubber bands, would you give us 2,000?' "
Back then, it was a job just to convince people that this thing called the Contemporary Museum even existed, because it didn't have either a collection or a building (and it still doesn't). From the beginning it has been dedicated to showing contemporary art in temporary spaces, often abandoned buildings.
"She could really go after supporting a project," says Joyce Scott, a renowned Baltimore artist who has been on the Contemporary's board. "She's a highly articulate and tenacious woman."
Corrin's cheerful refusal to admit the possibility of defeat goes all the way back to her childhood. "Anything Lisa has ever set her sights on she has achieved," says her mother, Patricia Graziose. "She won a baking contest when she was about 8. At 12 she took up baton twirling and won all the medals. She was no more than 13 when she won an organ competition. She played a version of 'Tico Tico' that wowed the judges from the Juilliard School."
In a word, she's versatile, and she's had to be at the Contemporary. In 1989 she was hired by the museum's founding director, George Ciscle, when the Contemporary was no more than his good idea.
Its most famous show, Corrin's 1992 "Mining the Museum" in collaboration with the Maryland Historical Society, was the American Association of Museums' exhibition of the year. Corrin's companion publication won the George Wittenborn prize for scholarship and publication design.
The Contemporary has been praised in publications as diverse as the New York Times, the London Economist, Artforum, the Paris Art Press, Museum News and the Journal of Art Education. Corrin herself has participated in programs at Yale University, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Akademie der Kunst in Hamburg, Germany, and the Museum for African Art in New York, among others.
But international renown, though welcome, has never been the prime goal of the Contemporary. Its mission, as Ciscle states it, has always been "to exhibit art in such a way as to make it meaningful to people's everyday life." Corrin and Ciscle together made sure that every exhibit was rooted in Baltimore, sometimes even a particular part of Baltimore.
For example, "Can-Ton: The Baltimore Series" was a series of paintings by Chinese-born artist Hung Liu. It was installed in a former bank building in Canton, a section of the city that in the late-18th century was owned by a captain in the China trade. A satellite exhibit at the Peale Museum traced the history of Baltimore's Chinese immigration.
And the "Contemporary East European Ceramics" show was installed in a former Polish convent in Fells Point, a section of town with a large population of Eastern European origin.
"What you do must reflect the moment and the place in which you live," Corrin says, "and must somehow connect to the people you are providing a service for." You can't do that without involvement, and though she has lived here only eight of her 38 years, Corrin has come to love the city and its people.