A Work in Progress

With an ambitious agenda and personable style, Doreen Bolger is trying to take the Baltimore Museum of Art from venerable to vibrant.

July 18, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Ask anyone how Doreen Bolger is doing after a year and a half on the job as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the question is likely to come back to the issue of frames. The Matisse frames, that is.

After a major building renovation in 1986, then-BMA director Arnold Lehman and his deputy director, Brenda Richardson, removed the original gilt frames from the museum's famed Cone Collection of Impressionist paintings and replaced them with modern metal frames, arguing that they more closely reflected the artist's intent.

Only in Baltimore could such a seemingly minor incident spark a major controversy. The frame episode quickly came to crystallize in many people's minds a perception that the BMA was indifferent to local sensibilities.

Critics complained that the new installation gave the paintings a "postage stamp" look that trivialized the art and ran counter to the wishes of the Cone sisters.

Letters of protest poured in to the museum and local newspapers. One writer likened the new frames to "poisonous mushrooms after a rain." The controversy became a cause celebre.

So it was no accident that when Bolger took over as BMA director last year, one of her first official acts was to reinstall the Cone collection in the original frames.

For Bolger, 50, it was a smart move politically. It immediately made her appear responsive to local concerns, and it seemed to represent a dramatic break with the past.

As a gesture, however, it also revealed some of the limitations on her ability to effect big changes quickly. A large institution like the BMA, with a staff of 140 people and a $9 million annual budget, is a big ship that is slow to turn around.

"I know how difficult it is when you start, especially in a place where the pieces have been in place a long time," says Walters Art Gallery director Gary Vikan. "Changing them can be painful."

When Bolger arrived, for example, the museum was still committed to shows planned years earlier, such as last year's "The Little Dancer" exhibition of Degas paintings. "Faces of Impression," the last show whose planning predates Bolger's tenure, opens this fall, but it has been in the works since 1994.

In addition to exhibitions, Bolger is also stuck to some extent with institutional decisions and priorities reached years before she came on the scene.

"Every institution is a work in progress," she says.

Vision and visitors

And there's the problem of audiences. Museums and opera are the only major institutions of high culture whose audiences generally have been increasing in recent years.

Last year more than 275,000 people visited the BMA, but that was down from the museum's record high of 350,000 two years ago. The drop is attributable in part to the lack of a blockbuster show like 1997's "A Grand Design," which alone drew 150,000 visitors. This year's attendance has remained flat as well, perhaps in part because the street construction going on in front of the museum has blocked some visitor parking.

"Our exhibitions, educational programs, how we present the art will be the most important factor in how we attract people, especially the repeat visitors," Bolger says. "We want people to develop a relationship with the museum, and the whole staff is working on that goal."

But while Bolger insists the museum's activities will not be market-driven, she must realize that on some level she will be judged as much by the number of tickets she sells as by the quality of the museum's exhibition and educational programs.

How to keep the crowds coming is a question no director can afford to ignore.

Bolger has big plans for the BMA. She wants to expand the audience, strengthen exhibition and educational programs, double membership from 7,500 to 15,000 and repair ties to the local art community, which were frayed after the museum dropped its biennial shows of regional artists years ago.

Bolger also has begun a complete redesign of the museum's galleries, including the Cone Wing, which will reopen next year. Similar overhauls of the Old Masters, African, Native American and Oceanic art collections are scheduled.

A new approach

A specialist in 19th-century American art who headed the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence before coming to Baltimore, Bolger has brought a new openness to the BMA, which had come to be seen as stuffy and aloof.

Her style is marked by diplomacy, tact and a desire for consensus -- all of which have helped extend the honeymoon phase of her tenure.

"She represents a refreshing change from the past, a person who is accessible and who has helped raise morale in the city's artistic community as well as in the museum," says Constantine Grimaldis, owner of Grimaldis Gallery.

Bolger cites the museum's Degas show last fall as a model for the approach she hopes will draw more people to the BMA.

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