Framing the FUTURE From more inclusive roles for staff to a sharper focus on the museum's holdings, new director Doreen Bolger promises waves of change. BYL HOLLY SELBY

January 31, 1998|By SUN STAFF

The departure next month of the Baltimore Museum of Art's chief curator portends a wave of change led by the museum's new director in the use of the staff, the presentation of the permanent collection and the institution's interactions with the community.

Doreen Bolger, who on Feb. 17 officially takes her place as the museum's new director, aims to create a broad base of responsibility and authority within the museum's management to ensure that "everyone would have a voice," she says.

Brenda Richardson, who was the BMA's deputy director and curator of modern painting and sculpture for 20 years, announced earlier this week that she would leave her post on Feb. 13. As the museum's No. 2 administrator, Richardson had enormous influence on both what the public saw within its galleries and on its relationship with the local arts community.

"There are going to be changes here at the museum, that is very clear," Bolger says. "Change is challenging because the familiar is always very comfortable, so I would ask people for patience and support. We are going to take some risks and possibly make some mistakes, but we are going to move forward."

The museum's new director inherits an institution with an operating budget of $9 million and endowment of $56.2 million. It can boast of a string of successful exhibitions, including "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum," which earned national critical acclaim and drew about 150,000 visitors before it closed last week. But some in Baltimore's arts circles have come to view the institution as aloof from area residents and artists.

By restructuring the administration, Bolger's goal is to redistribute responsibility and authority among a range of staff members. "I want the structure to be set up in a way that always has around the table all the different voices of the museum. I want it to include a broad range of people within the museum -- curatorial, educational, marketing, installation," she says.

Since her appointment in October, the 48-year-old has continued in her post as director of the RISD Museum at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. She also has commuted between Providence and Baltimore frequently to attend staff meetings, consult with board members and map out her initial strategies.

After beginning her job full-time, Bolger intends to reconsider the installation of the BMA's permanent collections. In doing so, she will be looking for ways to draw greater attention to the museum's holdings, which include the renowned Cone Collection of early modern paintings and sculptures.

"The great resources of the BMA are its collections and its staff," the director says. "The temptation always is to focus on temporary exhibitions and to bring great shows here to the city. But we are lucky to have great resources. As you look at the collections, there are many things we can do to build on the past and perhaps to draw new attention to what is already here."

Ways of refocusing public attention on the museum's permanent holdings might include creating more interpretive installations or expanded use of labels, brochures or audio guides, she says.

The director, who is a specialist in 19th-century American art, also hopes to increase the number and kinds of voices heard at the museum, whether in staff meetings or in tour groups.

"There's no question that Baltimore is a city of diversity. There's a strong African-American population here, and that part of our audience needs to see more of themselves in the museum: in the staff, in the programs and in the other visitors they see in the building," she says. And, she adds, "Diversity means many things. Some of these things have to do with race, religion, social and economic background. We really want to be accessible and inviting to virtually everyone."

The BMA's educational programs, which range from free admission for school groups to hands-on children's activities, already reach nearly 40,000 youths annually. And this year, the BMA is launching a new $1.18 million program, paid for by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, which may provide, among other things, workshops and a van that will provide children with rides to the museum.

Bolger now wants to build upon these programs. "The museum PTC has a wonderful education department and has been involved in many different levels for a long time," she says. "We need to reach outside of the building."

In the past decade, however, two topics have dominated discussions in local art circles. Both involve decisions made during the tenure of deputy director Richardson and of former BMA director Arnold Lehman, who left Baltimore in August to head the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

One was the replacement in 1986 of the period frames on the Cone Collection's Matisse paintings with small strip metal frames.

The other is the cancellation in the 1980s of the museum's biennial show of regional art, which featured Maryland artists.

As far as these issues go, Bolger is making no promises. However, she says of the biennial: "I think the essence of what was important about the biennial is our commitment to our artists. And I think that could be done in many, many ways -- exhibitions, artists participating in the programs here as presenters and so on. I want to think of the artists' role very broadly, and I want to talk to the artists before making decisions."

Programs that invite artists to create their own installations within the museum, or allow artists to interpret the museum's permanent installations in lectures or in tours, are ways in which a museum can embrace local artists, she says.

And what about the frames?

"I'll be looking at the whole collection, and we'll be talking about many, many different things, including about how things are displayed," Bolger says.

And what about the frames?

"I really love old frames, and I've always considered them an integral part of the artwork."

Pub Date: 1/31/98

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