Four walls for museum long without

Home: The Contemporary opens permanent quarters today. Many art lovers welcome the move, but some fear a loss of innovation.

September 25, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF WRITER

With a shout and a flourish, workmen held high by a crane wrestle a red-black-and-yellow banner into place. Now it's official: The organization that for 10 years has promoted itself as a "museum without walls" has walls of its own -- in an insurance building at 100 W. Centre St.

In letters that can be read from two blocks away, the sign announces more than the opening today of the Contemporary Museum. It marks the newest addition to the Mount Vernon neighborhood, a midtown district that includes the Maryland Historical Society, the Walters Art Gallery and the Peabody Institute, and that gradually is coalescing into a cultural nucleus for the city.

The banner also signals a big leap by a small organization known for working outside the art establishment. The Contemporary, which prided itself on being unlike other museums, now is a little less different. Some art lovers applaud the move; others wonder whether the Contemporary Museum's new programs will be as innovative in a permanent home. This, after all, is the institution that presented shows in the back of a pickup truck, an abandoned bus station, a convent. It made being homeless a plus.

The museum's executive director, Gary Sangster, says the Contemporary Museum is not going to lose its personality. "We've always been the sand in the oysters," he says. "Will it stop being the kind of catalyst that it has been? Maybe. We may have fulfilled that particular mission, and we may become a catalyst of another kind."

White walls, white track lighting and imperfect plaster ceilings give the new museum an edgy feel: The emphasis is on art, not comfort.

Sangster's aim is to present to Baltimore audiences cutting-edge contemporary art created by nationally and internationally known artists. A home will allow the museum, which has no collection, to present year-round exhibitions and educational programs such as video festivals or lectures. But the tradition of off-site shows will continue, Sangster says. There are plans to collaborate with the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Peabody Institute.

But some members of the art community are reserving judgment. "This change has created both a sense of admiration and also, because of its history, a keen sense of anxiety about whether something that has been so vital is in a certain sense caving in to the pressures of the need to have a location," says Alan Rutberg, a professor of visual arts at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Thoughtful shows

Since 1989, the Contemporary Museum has swooped into unexpected places, installing temporary shows and engaging the community with outreach programs. Its exhibitions, often presented in collaboration with more established institutions, have popped up in sites as disparate as the Walters Art Gallery and a street corner in The Block. Often the exhibits challenged traditional notions of what art is and how and where it should be viewed. "We were like the Lone Ranger," Sangster says. "We'd plan an exhibition, come into a neighborhood, then move on to the next."

One show, "Mining the Museum," received national notice and critical acclaim in 1992 and caused cultural institutions nationwide to re-examine how they present the art and history of minorities. The show, at the Maryland Historical Society, was New York artist Fred Wilson's exploration of how achievements of African-Americans have been overlooked in the nation's cultural history.

" `Mining the Museum' set a model for ways that institutions might think about the presentation and display of artifacts, ways of thinking about ideologies and idea systems that underlie the selection of objects," says Lynne Cooke, curator for DIA Center for the Arts in New York.

But the Contemporary's guerrilla-style approach to presenting art contributed to a perennial struggle for visibility. "For years when I would mention the Contemporary at a cocktail party everyone would say either, `Where are you located?' or `That's that new museum down on Key Highway, right?' " says Steve Ziger, president of the board of trustees.

The Contemporary was the brainchild of Baltimorean George Ciscle. Soft-spoken and unaffected, Ciscle more closely resembles a college professor than a maverick of the art world. Yet he has a passion for art and a penchant for change. The 52-year-old has been a Baltimore County schoolteacher, an art gallery owner and a founder of a museum. He resigned three years ago from the directorship at the Contemporary and is curator in residence at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

Original vision

Ten years ago, Ciscle saw a need for an art organization that used unusual methods to introduce contemporary art to audiences. "The mission was to explore new ways to connect contemporary artists to new audiences," he says. "But we didn't define what those ways were."

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