R.I. woman is named new director of BMA Doreen Bolger called strong in fund raising, consensus building

October 23, 1997|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Museum of Art appointed as its new director yesterday a specialist in 19th-century American art who heads the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.

Doreen Bolger -- known in the museum world as a serious-minded curator and a consensus builder with a sense of humor -- replaces Arnold Lehman, who left in August to lead the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Bolger, 48, plans to begin her new job in early 1998.

"I was drawn to the museum by many, many things: by the strength of the collections, which are a national treasure in terms of decorative arts and modern art," she said, "and also by the strength of the staff and the commitment of the board to the educational outreach mission of the museum."

Her career as a museum professional spans 25 years, 15 of which were spent in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she rose to the position of curator of American painting and sculpture.

Bolger, who earned a doctorate at the City University of New York, brings strengths ranging from fund-raising skills to innovative ideas about programming, said Anthony Deering, chairman of the BMA's board of trustees.

"A blend of an outstanding academic background, a terrific progression of responsibilities and very strong recommendations from everyone in the industry about her capacity for future growth attracted me," Deering said.

"Doreen also had interesting ideas about the use of the permanent collection in conjunction with exhibitions that are brought in as a way to highlight the museum."

Deering particularly was struck by Bolger's vision of what a museum should be.

In an interview, she said that "a museum in some ways had to be a mirror for the people, and if they couldn't see themselves reflected somewhere in the museum, then something was wrong. So there has to be something in the museum for everyone," he said.

"I remember that had a real effect on all the members of the committee."

Love at first sight

Bolger's reputation as an effective consensus builder also impressed the board, said Constance Caplan, who headed the museum's search committee.

"It was almost love at first sight. We just liked her intellect, her ability to be straightforward," Caplan said.

"But [on a visit to the Rhode Island School of Design] we also immediately noticed the relationship between her and her staff.

"We liked her ability to communicate with all kinds of people and the fact that she obviously spent a great deal of time in the galleries."

Bolger is not the BMA's first female director: Florence N. Levy held the directorship from 1923 through 1927.

And Adelyn Breeskin, who is considered a renowned collection builder, led the institution from 1942 until 1962. It was under Breeskin's guidance that the museum obtained the Cone Collection, the keystone of the BMA's holdings.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bolger built a reputation as a meticulous and driven scholar.

She was initially hired by the Met to write the third volume of the catalog of the museum's American paintings.

By the time she had finished the job, "she had set a standard for the field among paintings catalogs," said John K. Howat, who heads the Metropolitan Museum's departments of American art.

At the Met, Bolger also curated and contributed to exhibitions that included "American Impressionism and Realism, The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915"; "In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement"; and "Charles Willson Peale and His World."

A time of major changes

From 1989 until 1994, when she became head of the RISD Museum, Bolger was curator of paintings and sculpture at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

Though her tenure at the RISD lasted less than four years, Bolger oversaw a number of changes, including increasing the museum's funding from $1.9 million in 1996 to $3.1 million in 1997.

She also oversaw the launch of the museum's first promotional campaign, updated its security system and art storage systems, beefed up its educational programs and initiated substantial renovations, including the reinstallation of its European fine and decorative arts galleries.

"The real miracle is how she was able to come in [to RISD] and sense the critical infrastructure issues that we had here," said Roger Mandle, president of the Rhode Island School of Design.

"Frankly, it would have been easier for her if she had just glossed over it -- she could have just gone to expensive cocktail parties. Instead, she really made some necessary changes.

"No time is good to have someone like her leave, but she is a rising star."

Bolger's new job at the BMA will present her with new -- and literally larger -- challenges.

The RISD Museum was founded in 1877 and owns more than 50,000 objects, including strong holdings in decorative arts. There Bolger oversaw a staff of 75 and an annual operating budget of $3.2 million.

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