Some walls to call its own Building: New home gives the Contemporary Museum oh-so-right space to stretch and grow in.

October 31, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The Contemporary Museum has found a home in the right place, with the right space and under the right circumstances, according to its director, Gary Sangster. "It met all the conditions were looking for," he said yesterday in talking about the museum's plans.

Since its debut in 1989, the Contemporary has been Maryland's "museum without walls," staging exhibitions in various locations around the region. Beginning in January, it will rent half of the first floor of the Home Mutual building at Centre Street and Park Avenue -- 3,500 square feet of space. The space, in the building just bought by the Maryland Historical Society, will give the Contemporary 1,500 square feet of office space and 2,000 square feet to be used for exhibitions and education programs.

Sangster emphasized that the Contemporary will still do major exhibitions elsewhere. "We will be operating off-site and collaborating with other institutions," he said. Such projects include a major show on ethnic cultural identity with the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2000.

The new space will give the Contemporary something it has long needed: visibility and a home. And its new address will strategically place it in the Mount Vernon cultural area, right between the Walters Art Gallery at Charles and Centre streets and the MHS at Park Avenue and Monument Street.

"It will give us identity and provide a good climate for the kind of work we're doing," Sangster said. "It's flexible space, it's financially realistic, and we will have a supportive landlord."

The Contemporary will take over the east half of the first floor in January and hopes to have it renovated for move-in by April. Renovation costs are expected to be $200,000 to $250,000, which the Contemporary still has to raise. If all goes well, the museum hopes to take over the other half of the first floor, currently under lease, the next year. That would give it a total of 8,000 square feet and add a major gallery space.

Sangster hopes to inaugurate the new home in April with a show of works "by 10 to 12 of the most influential artists of the last 20 to 25 years, including Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Mary Kelly and possibly Vito Acconci." He plans to borrow art from local museums and private collections, including the BMA.

The show will be accompanied by about 20 lectures and discussion groups by writers, critics and artists. "We want to give people a better idea of how to approach and understand contemporary art," Sangster said.

Continuing its off-site shows, the Contemporary in January will inaugurate a yearlong series of exhibitions in four large windows of a parking garage at Baltimore and Holliday streets. Four groups of four young artists will exhibit works in the windows for fTC three-month periods each. Artist Lauren Bass will curate the show.

The biggest project now in the planning stage is the BMA exhibit, probably beginning in May 2000. Called "Visibility," the show is about building ethnic cultural and community identities within the larger American culture. It will involve eight artists of Latin American, Irish, African-American, Native American and Iranian backgrounds.

If the Contemporary expands to 8,000 square feet, Sangster would like to bring in touring exhibitions and also give one-person, retrospective-type shows to local artists.

His other plans include adding to the staff, now only himself, a deputy director, an education director and a part-time exhibitions coordinator. He would like to make the last position full-time and add another education person and a full-time resident curator.

The museum has been without a curator since Lisa Corrin left about a year ago for a position in London. In the interim, Sangster, himself a respected curator, has been filling in and working with guest curators.

Sangster said that with the move, he expects yearly operating expenses to increase from $260,000 to just over $300,000.

Contemporary board president Steve Ziger said he thought the board would eventually need to consider a capital campaign to provide an endowment. The Contemporary has no endowment now.

Other museum directors expressed enthusiasm yesterday about the Contemporary's move and the increased visibility potential.

"This was very appealing," said Dennis Fiori, executive director of the Maryland Historical Society. "We really want to see ourselves in the role of doing whatever we can to improve Mount Vernon."

The historical society will use the rest of the building to house its growing collections. Fiori and Sangster said that the amount of rent the Contemporary will pay is yet to be decided.

"I think it's absolutely terrific," said Walters Art Gallery director Gary Vikan. "It's good for the neighborhood to have the building occupied, and having it occupied with a group we have `f collaborated with and may collaborate with again I think is just great."

The Contemporary's two most acclaimed shows so far have been "Going for Baroque" with the Walters in 1995-1996 and "Mining the Museum" with the historical society in 1992-1993.

"I'm totally supportive of what they're doing," said BMA director Doreen Bolger, who added that she looked forward to working with the Contemporary.

Note: From 5: 30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Nov. 8, the Contemporary Museum will hold a fund-raiser gala called "Night of the Devious Divas" at Spike & Charlie's restaurant, 1225 Cathedral St. It will include entertainment and silent and live auctions. Tickets are $100 for nonmembers, $85 for members. Call 410-333-8600.

Pub Date: 10/31/98

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