Practicing the art of collaboration As funding dwindles, the city's museums are exploring ways they can cooperate to gain bigger crowds, better exhibits and national attention.

August 30, 1998|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,sun staff

Early last spring, Doreen Bolger sat in a Charles Street restaurant with Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery, and talked business. Bolger, recently appointed head of the Baltimore Museum of Art, was new to the city, but the two directors had been friends for years.

Their conversation turned to an interesting exhibition of ancient Syrian objects organized by the Worcester (Mass.) Art Museum and titled "Antioch: The Lost Roman City." Trouble was, Worcester had offered the show to the BMA - and, separately, to the Walters.

Bigger trouble was, both Baltimore institutions wanted it.

But by the time coffee was served, a decision had been reached: The Walters would abandon its bid for the show, and the BMA would open the exhibition on its own in the fall of 2001.

The agreement is auspicious for the city's cultural future. Cooperation between the directors of Baltimore's two most prominent museums is one of the signs - both large and small - of a change in how the city's museums view each other. If they used to be, at best, oblivious to each other's needs or, at worst, genteel competitors, they are now more frequently acting as allies.

As government support for the arts dwindles and competition for corporate support intensifies, museums nationwide are increasingly joining forces, working with the corporate community and partnering with tourism boards. "Collaboration and cooperation are in the air in the same way that banks are joining forces in mergers," says Vikan. "It has to do with how you reanalyze and reassess what competition means, what your market means, where your opportunities lie."

Baltimore is a city of some 40 museums. You can wander through the BMA, with its renowned collection of post-impressionist works; examine the Walters' medieval and Renaissance treasures; spend an afternoon at the American Visionary Art Museum, filled with works by self-taught artists. You can choose from a smorgasbord of smaller institutions offering everything from a history of sewer systems to portraits.

In the next three years, two more museums will join the diverse community: Port Discovery, a children's museum that will open in December; and the Maryland Museum of African American History and Culture, slated to open in fall 2001.

Despite its wealth of museums, the city lacks a single collection or institution that consistently merits national attention and draws significant out-of-town crowds.

Maybe Baltimore's blockbuster will be the sum of its parts.

Cooperative efforts have taken a variety of forms. For example:

n In 1996, a dozen downtown institutions formed the nonprofit Mount Vernon Cultural Association with the goal of increasing the number of visitors to the 17-block area surrounding Baltimore's Washington Monument. Its members include the Basilica of the Assumption, Center Stage, the Maryland Historical Society and the Walters.

n The Baltimore Museum of Industry, the American Visionary Art Museum and the Little Havana restaurant are among a group of Key Highway institutions publicizing attractions on the south side of the Inner Harbor. They jointly have published a brochure and sponsored summer evenings of extended hours called "Key Wednesdays," and are planning a day of shopping and festivities for December.

n The Walters Art Gallery last spring invited other organizations to develop programming that could be tied to a future museum exhibition. Called "The Invisible Made Visible: Angels in the Vatican," the show opens at the Walters in December and will include more than 100 paintings, sculptures and tapestries from the Vatican museums.

So far, plans include a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert featuring "angelic" music; a menu of angel-hair pasta and angel-food cake offered by Truffles restaurant on Chase Street; and a photography contest and show sponsored by the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.

The city's museums are facing an unofficial deadline for demonstrating teamwork: In May 2000, the Association of American Museums will hold its annual convention here, guaranteeing the city's cultural institutions a large and influential audience of museum administrators and corporate supporters of the arts. Says Kathy Dwyer Southern, the executive director of Port Discovery: "This is a great opportunity for all of us to show off."

Philadelphia's success

At Philadelphia's Four Seasons Hotel, Jean-Marie Lacroix leans back against an upholstered bench. His waiters bustle about, whisking imaginary crumbs from starched white tablecloths. "When I think Delacroix," he says, pursing his lips and gazing upward, "I think passion. Meat. Game. Spices. Maybe figs."

His comments about the 19th-century French painter's works are easily explained. As the hotel's executive chef, he is planning a new menu to complement an exhibition of 70 paintings and 40 works on paper opening Sept. 15 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The show, titled "Delacroix: The Late Work," will be seen in only two cities - Paris and Philadelphia.

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