To The Core

As the BMA shifts gears, will it flourish? Doreen Bolger is banking on it.

January 07, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

Doreen Bolger stands amid a work-in-progress. Around her, the Cone Wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art, stripped of paintings, seems oddly naked. Where one expects to see Matisse's "Large Reclining Nude," a workman feeds out smooth loops of insulated wire. Another workman perches on a ladder where the French artist's "Seated Odalisque, Left Knee Bent" ordinarily would hang.

The wing usually houses the museum's biggest attraction: the art collection amassed by Baltimore sisters Etta and Claribel Cone that includes works by Matisse, Gauguin, Picasso, Cezanne and Pissarro. But since April 1999, the wing has been closed as part of a $4.2 million renovation, and the Cone Collection itself has been on the road, making stops at museums elsewhere.

Bolger, the museum's director, surveys the construction scene around her. "Isn't it great?" she asks over the sound of an electric drill. Then she answers the question herself, "I think it's great."

It needs to be great: The health of the BMA rides on the project's success.

At most museums, traveling "blockbusters" form the backbone of the exhibition program. But at the BMA, Bolger wants to refocus attention on the museum's permanent holdings, in particular its Cone Collection. The director is, in a phrase, thinking local, not national -- more about what the museum already owns, less about what it might borrow -- smaller scale rather than larger.

Her goal is to build a loyal core of museum lovers who will return again and again to view shows that highlight the BMA's own collections.

"This isn't a science and we don't know what will happen, but I think this is what we should be doing," she says.

The Cone Wing renovations are just part of Bolger's plan to transform how visitors experience the 86-year-old museum. By any standards, the past few years at the institution have been tumultuous, both physically -- as galleries are closed and walls torn down -- and philosophically, as Bolger attempts to alter radically how the museum does business.

Thorough housecleaning

Since becoming director in February 1998, Bolger has changed nearly every aspect of the BMA, from the types of frames on its masterpieces to the kind of parties it organizes for members. She has replaced the executive management team, restructured the staff and noticeably altered the character of the museum's exhibits.

But these changes have not come without cost:

n Since March 1998, one month after Bolger's arrival, more than half of the 98 staff members then employed (not including facilities workers and security guards) have resigned. In some cases, key posts were left unfilled for months. Other positions were created and filled by the new director, vacated after several months and, in at least one case, never filled again.

Exhibition scheduling has seemed to lag, perhaps due to employee turnover, including a period of nearly two years during which the museum had no curator of contemporary art. Last year, long months passed between the museum's three largest shows: a retrospective of Baltimore artist Joyce Scott, an exhibit of French paintings drawn from both the BMA and the Walters Art Museum's collections and an exhibit featuring the decorative arts and fashion of American presidents.

Attendance figures dropped from a peak of 347,996 visitors in 1996 to 277,589 visitors in 1999. While that figure increased to 290,299 last year, that still represents more than a 16 percent drop from the all-time high.

Membership has fallen about 36 percent, from a high of 11,487 households in 1997 to 7,340 last year.

Fund-raising, even in the midst of an economic boom, has remained essentially flat. Even now -- four months before the project's completion -- the museum is still raising the money for the $4.2 million worth of renovations, a relatively small amount in the world of museum construction. By contrast, the Walters is scheduled to complete a $24 million renovation project next fall.

The past few years were years of transition, with much of the museum's energy focused on renovations, reinstallations and restructuring, Bolger says. She attributes the drop in attendance to galleries being closed: Besides the Cone Wing, the Old Master paintings wing and parts of the contemporary art wing have been shut down for maintenance or reinstallation.

Now, beginning with the reopening of the Cone Wing on April 22, the museum staff can focus on exhibitions, fund-raising and membership. "We needed to get our house in order," Bolger says. "Now we can move forward."

Museum trustee Elaine Snyder says: "We needed to shake up the way we look at things. The museum has a huge collection that hasn't been shown, and now those artworks are going to come out of mothballs."

Pointing to coming exhibits featuring sculpture by contemporary artists and mosaics from the ancient city of Antioch, she adds: "We are all waiting to see the exhibits that are scheduled; they sound wonderful to me. And we are waiting for the Cone Collection to come back."

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