The BMA's New Acquisition Doreen Bolger, who takes her place as the museum's director in March, has a reputation for excellence and quiet effectiveness.

November 09, 1997|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- During Doreen Bolger's first week as director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, water was leaking from the heating system into the vaults where millions of dollars worth of paintings and sculptures were stored.

Bolger closed the painting galleries. She ordered the artworks moved from the vaults into the now-dark galleries. Then she began raising the nearly $500,000 needed to pay for the renovation project that would take four years to complete.

She is expecting a far less dramatic beginning at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Bolger, a 48-year-old art historian, takes her place as BMA director in March. Between now and then she will be making frequent visits to Baltimore to learn about an institution that is seeking to build and diversify its audiences, to make itself more welcoming, and to increase the amount of money it earns through its programs and exhibitions.

"Everyone needs to see themselves somehow reflected in the museum. All kinds of people. Residents. Artists. Collectors. We send out invitations, and then we are surprised when no one comes," she says.

"Well, we need to do more than send out invitations. We need sometimes to go out ourselves and get to know people. That's the kind of thing that I am trying to do."

Tall, with a firm handshake that belies the sweet roundness of her face, Bolger has been running the museum in Providence for less than four years. Not long, but time enough for her, with the backing of the School of Design's president, Roger Mandle, to make sweeping changes -- many of a decidedly unglamorous nature.

To protect the collections, she had the vaults renovated, the security system replaced, new heat and air conditioning systems installed, and the collection records computerized.

But she also increased the museum's operating budget from $1.9 million to $3.1 million and oversaw a $1.5 million reinstallation of the museum's European fine arts and decorative arts galleries. She also worked to diversify the museum's staff -- adding non-Caucasian employees to the security, administrative and curatorial departments.

And to make the museum more user-friendly, she changed its name from the cumbersome "Rhode Island School of Design Museum" to the "RISD Museum" (pronounced Riz-dee) -- which is what everyone calls it, anyway. Then she presided over the first advertising campaign the museum has ever launched.

In doing so, Bolger gradually won over colleagues from both academic and curatorial worlds, as well as community members -- in a region whose residents are noted for their reserve.

"We weren't sure what to make of her," says Holly Hughes, an artist who heads the School of Design's painting department. "Then we came to realize that she is a generous-spirited kind of person. She won people over in quiet ways, not demonstrative ways. And this is New England, it's not that easy to be a newcomer here."

Down to details

Bolger is known as a scholar who pays meticulous attention to detail, an administrator who does her homework. She conducts meetings at home because she needs to feed the kids. She sends thank-you notes to all faculty members who exhibit work in the museum. She thrives on little sleep.

She is the sort of person who could be intimidating, but isn't -- saved by a ready laugh and delightful willingness to poke fun at herself.

Art always has attracted her because of what it says about

people. Paintings, sculptures, installations are created by people, and are then interpreted and reinterpreted by people -- their meanings changing as time passes. "Art tells us so much about ourselves and about the past. It has a way of conveying its spiritual and intellectual facets to people, and, yes, it is also beautiful."

The director stands in the RISD Impressionism gallery. Dressed in a two-piece, black outfit with comfortable, flat, black shoes, Bolger is a picture of no-nonsense professionalism. Her signature accessory, a vivid scarf draped about her neck, adds the only splash of color.

Around her, the gallery's rose-colored walls are covered with beautiful pictures: a mill painted by Pissarro, a promenade scene created by Monet. In the middle of the room sits a white marble sculpture, Rodin's "The Hand of God."

Of all of these objects, Bolger's favorite is a painting by Manet. Called "Le Repos," it is an oil-on-canvas portrait of artist and beauty Berthe Morisot. In it, Morisot wears a long, white gown and leans languidly against a high-backed sofa as she gazes, unruffled, at her observers.

Does Bolger love the work for its colors? Its loose brush strokes? The contemplative mood it evokes? Yes, yes, of course. Then the director laughs, a deep, happy guffaw: "It's because I want to look like that and never will!"

Rhode Island museum

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