At 67, Walters gets a new look

Museum: The Walters will show off its $24 million renovation with a weekend of festivities while working on an ambitious plan for more construction.

October 20, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

At the Walters Art Museum, a curator is installing an exhibit of ancient maps, workmen are giving the last few swipes of their dust cloths to banisters, a designer is fiddling with the lighting inside a Plexiglas case of gold jewelry. In just hours, the museum will reopen to the public after three years of renovations, and there's still much to be done.

But even as they oversee the finishing touches for the remodeled galleries, the museum's director and its board of trustees are planning larger changes in the 67-year-old institution's home and the scope of its mission.

This morning, the Walters unveils its $24 million renovation project with two days of festivities that will include a parade, puppet shows and music from salsa to gospel singing. The event marks a milestone for the museum, but is only one part of an ambitious plan that includes construction of exhibition galleries as well as creation of spaces for the study and conservation of art.

That hoped-for facility already has a name - the Center for Art and Technological Studies - and would be in a new building on Cathedral Street behind the Walters headquarters. Plans call for the creation of a new gallery for "exhibitions of the grandest sort," a center for art scholars and a conservation department, said Gary Vikan, museum director.

A skywalk spanning the street would connect old museum buildings to new.

The Walters has begun raising money for the estimated $75 million project, according to Vikan. The museum intends to ask the city to issue bonds to help pay for the project, and to appeal to sources outside Baltimore. But in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the project may take five to 10 years to complete, the director said.

"I am not asking anybody for money right now," Vikan said. "We as a country will be taking a deep breath - there are higher priorities right now. But I am so optimistic about our collective future that I feel comfortable saying if we have this conversation 18 months from now, it will be acquiring some real specificity."

The Walters is recognized among scholars throughout the world for the excellence of its holdings in illuminated manuscripts, Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine art. But in an age when museums vie for attention with entertainment venues from Disney World to shopping malls, vellum manuscripts, Ming vases, and Byzantine chalices can be a hard sell.

Attractive, but elitist

By its own admission, the Walters has been perceived by some members of the general public as beautiful, but elitist.

"A certain coterie of people both inside the Baltimore region and outside understand that the Walters is a great museum, but that's only among people who really know museums," said Robert Feinberg, president of the board. "What we're doing will make it easy to understand how great the collection is."

With its new look and reinstalled collections, the Walters hopes to appeal to more diverse audiences from Baltimore and beyond.

In particular, the museum aims to draw more African-Americans and families with children. It wants to present higher-profile exhibitions that, in turn, will attract more attention and more visitors. And it wants to be considered a destination for tourists.

Hopes for wider attention

"I'd be delighted to see an enlarged audience coming from the local area," said Feinberg. "But I also hope the Walters will come increasingly to the attention of people all over the country and the world. The better known we are and the better known the sheer wealth of the objects we have, the better the future prospects of the Walters are."

Recently, the Walters carved about 200 tons of cement out of its Centre Street faM-gade to fashion a more welcoming visitor entrance, complete with a four-story glass entryway and spiral staircase that's visible from the sidewalk. It also created a cafe and expanded its gift shop. It redesigned its lobbies, which now include touch-screen computers to help museum-goers plan their visits, expanded membership services and created a station at which to pick up the museum's new 306-stop audio guide. There's also a new children's activity center.

More importantly, the museum reconfigured and reinstalled 39 galleries with the goal of giving visitors a sense of how its art objects - from Ethiopian processional crosses to a Roman banquet sofa - were viewed at the time they were created. In one gallery, a knight's hall from around 1500 has been re-created; in another, Roman sarcophagi, or stone coffins, are grouped in a tomblike setting.

Just the beginning

But those changes are just the beginning, say Walters administrators and trustees. The museum needs more storage space and a larger gallery in which to display temporary exhibitions.

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