Museum's director steps into new post

Contemporary's hire to get to know city

January 20, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

A former photography curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art begins work this week as the new executive director of Baltimore's beleaguered Contemporary Museum.

Thom Collins comes to the museum from the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, where he was senior curator. He replaces Gary Sangster, who resigned as director in 2002.

Since Sangster's departure, the museum had been led by interim director Leslie Shaffer. The museum temporarily closed its galleries to the public last August after an exhibition of paintings by New York artist Louisa Chase.

Some staff remained in the building while the museum's board worked to streamline operations and reduce costs. The gallery reopened in November to present Hands On, an exhibit honoring the late Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, in collaboration with the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. That show runs through Jan. 31.

Collins, 36, said he plans to concentrate on the strategic plan adopted by the Contemporary's board last spring.

In addition to hiring a new executive director and raising money, that plan called for building audiences, strengthening ties to the community and sponsoring fellowships for emerging and mid-career artists, curators and critics that would allow them to develop shows in collaboration with local institutions and artists.

"One of the ways to build audiences is to reach out to audiences we have not reached out to before," Collins said in an interview last week.

"I'll meet with museum stakeholders and people who have been historically tied to the institution in order to get their ideas," he said.

"We're also about to roll out the second phase of our new art learning center, which I think has the potential to reach out to people who've never visited the museum before."

The art learning center will provide on-site, online and outreach activities to support programs at the museum, Collins said. He added that the fellowship program envisioned under the plan was also an important part of building an audience.

"I'm interested in taking artists and curators out into the community to think through what kinds of projects would be most relevant and important to do here in Baltimore," he said. "The nature of the fellowship program is such that the projects are meant to be made in dialogue with the community."

Collins said that in Cincinnati and at the Henry Art Gallery of the University of Washington in Seattle, he organized nine to 12 shows a year. Last year, he mounted an exhibition of about 40 international contemporary artists to inaugurate the Contemporary Art Center's 87,000-square-foot building designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid.

That show, which he called "a meditation on the way in which a contemporary art museum might be a catalyst for positive social change," encouraged viewers to interact with the artworks in ways that encouraged awareness of such issues as racism, gay and lesbian rights and preserving the environment.

Other recent projects have included exhibitions of video, installation and paintings by South African expatriate artist Moshekwa Langa and a survey of politically engaged American art of the 1980s.

Next month, the art center in Cincinnati presents a show of sound and video installations by American artist Renee Green that Collins curated, and a show co-curated by him of young artists whose work responds to the urban environment.

Collins said that although he is eager to turn the Contemporary Museum into an important venue for national and international contemporary art, his first task will be getting to know Baltimore better.

"I want to stress that I can't pretend to really know this community until I've spent time getting to know people," he said.

"It's going to be a while before I roll out any detailed plans about anything because I want to first get to know the artists, the other arts institutions and our audience. I don't want to charge into a situation and make big decisions about things I don't really understand."

Collins, a 1988 graduate of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, is completing a doctorate in art history at Northwestern University in Illinois.

In 1994, he received a Newhall Curatorial Fellowship from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he spent three years as an assistant curator in the photography department.

Collins has taught art history at the University of Cincinnati, Northwestern and the University of Washington in Seattle and has published exhibition catalogs and scholarly articles.

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