Museums get new life in bailout plan Md. Historical Society will take over City Life collection

December 19, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Holly Selby contributed to this article.

The city's quirky collection of marble steps, Formstone and television sets that have been mothballed since the closing of the Baltimore City Life Museums last summer won new life yesterday under a bailout by another museum and $2 million from the city.

The Maryland Historical Society will take over the City Life collection as early as next year under a deal that keeps the artifacts in the public eye while leaving historic landmarks such as the H. L. Mencken House with an uncertain future.

Since the City Life closed because of poor management and low attendance, its historic buildings have been closed to the public.

This deal leaves the fate of the Carroll Mansion, the home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence; the Peale Museum, the first museum building in the United States; the Shot Tower; and other buildings in city government's hands.

Clair Segal, director of the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, said a plan is being devised for use of the other buildings.

"That's the next step. We honestly don't know what's going to happen," Segal said. "The first step was to make sure the collection was preserved."

Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center, the red iron-facade on South Front Street that underwent an $8 million renovation last year, also will be turned over to the city.

"We hope to have the [Blaustein] building used for public purposes that support the arts," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday.

In the meantime, the city will maintain the buildings and secure them from vandals, Segal said.

The society will make room for the collection of all things Baltimore alongside its pristine decorative collections in Mount Vernon headquarters, which will be expanded partly to house

the City Life's cache.

"We will begin moving material right after the first of the year," said Dennis Fiori, executive director of the Maryland Historical Society.

$2 million in debts

The historical society plans an exhibition of City Life collections as early as March.

The city, criticized for refusing to continue subsidizing the troubled City Life, has agreed to earmark a $2 million bond and give the money to the historical society to help with the bailout.

In turn, the historical society has assumed the more than $2 million in debts that City Life accrued over the past few years.

Under the terms of the merger, the historical society will become the new owners of more than 20,000 pieces of Baltimore memorabilia and 30,000 to 40,000 shards of material that had been dug up around Baltimore.

The historical society has about 7.5 million artifacts in its collection.

"We have traditionally promoted the finer arts and finer material, and our goal now is to put out a mix," Fiori said.

Historical society expansion

The historical society is undergoing a $20 million expansion. It plans to renovate a building next to its headquarters in Mount Vernon and erect another building that will connect the two.

Fiori said the historical society wanted to keep the City Life collection on display.

"Our feeling was that this was an extremely valuable resource," Fiori said. "The reason we are doing this is we felt responsible to protect the state's heritage."

Nevertheless, far fewer pieces of City Life memorabilia will be showcased at the historical society than when City Life was open.

Only about a third of City Life's collection will be on display at any one time, said Fiori.

After a much ballyhooed opening of its new $8 million exhibition center, the Blaustein building on South Front Street, City Life closed less than a year later. It was mired in debt because it could not attract enough visitors.

One of the main problems was that City Life was too spread out and its mission could not be easily defined, according to many experts. Consequently, tourists, never quite knowing what the museum was about, stayed away in droves.

Plan in May scrapped

Last May, the Maryland Historical Society nixed a plan that would have had the historical society take over the management of City Life.

Under that plan, City Life would have remained in its own buildings and operated much the way it always had. But it soon became clear that the cost of operating City Life -- about $2.2 million a year -- would have been too large a drain on the historical society's budget.

"We took a long look at this; the money simply wasn't there," Fiori said.

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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