The art of the matter

Editorial Notebook

September 04, 2004|By Ann LoLordo

CITIZENS OF Baltimore, lovers of art and those not so moved, municipal boosters and civic mavericks: As you drive past Penn Station, divert your gaze from the colossal He/She towering there. Reserve judgment on the patrons of the 52-foot aluminum hermaphrodite, the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore. For though its choice of a Baltimore symbol is in dispute, its contribution to the city's monumental character is not. Drive north on Charles Street to the intersection of 33rd Street, stop and admire the bust of Johns Hopkins, flanked as he is by two allegorical figures representing the university and hospital that bear his name.

Turn around and cut across Museum Drive, where the columned faM-gade of the Baltimore Museum of Art recalls an era of grandeur. Before it was moved indoors in 1971, a bronze cast of Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker" (there are several) sat at the base of the museum entrance steps for 40 years, evoking an aesthetic of contemplation and reflection. At the Municipal Art Society's inaugural meeting in 1899, Baltimore elites first discussed the idea of a public art museum.

Now, travel west, beyond the bronze likeness of Generals Lee and Jackson on horseback, a society project 19 years in the making. Go past Druid Hill Park and its great green expanse of oak and black gum and head for Leakin Park, a preserve of 350 plant species and 1,200 acres proposed in a 1903 survey of prospective park lands commissioned by the society. Hired in 1902, the Olmstead brothers mapped out Gwynns Falls and Herring Run parks and persuaded the city to expand Patterson, Wyman, Patapsco Valley and Gunpowder State parks. The Olmsteads also suggested the plaza in front of City Hall and the site for the War Memorial.

From Leakin Park, travel across the city toward its center and Mount Vernon Square. In 1900, a year after its founding, the Municipal Arts Society suggested that the buildings in Mount Vernon rise no taller than 70 feet from the base of the Washington Monument, a limit it successfully defended some 40 years later. The height restriction ensured the monument's prominence in this square of stately homes and remains in force today. Wander by the mirthful "Boy and Turtle" fountain, a stream of water playfully squirting from the terrapin's mouth. It followed by nearly 30 years Baltimore railroad owner Robert Garrett's 1890 gift of a park statute of George Peabody.

Stop for a moment at the Maryland Historical Society's garden on Monument Street. Then walk downtown to Hopkins Plaza for a look at "The Birth of Venus," in place since 1988, a year after the society installed "Redwood Arch" at Redwood and Paca streets. Drive the Jones Falls Expressway for the best view of Stan Edminster's painted bridges. Head south on Key Highway for a look at David Hess' 90-ton jangle of junked machinery, "Working Point," at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

From commissioning courthouse murals to developing a parks system, from promoting a planning commission to endowing art student scholarships, the Municipal Art Society sought to ornament public buildings and public spaces in Baltimore. In the tradition of the late 19th century "city beautiful" movement reflected at the Chicago World's Fair, prominent Baltimoreans with membership in the society set out to beautify the city. Individual benefactors and groups such as the Women's Civic League followed suit with a piece or two. City Hall expanded Baltimore's public art inventory when it earmarked up to 1 percent of public construction dollars to pay for it. But, as a private group, the Municipal Art Society is unmatched in its contributions. Its interests ran from 19th century French naturalism to postindustrial contemporary, a shift from the elite to the gritty.

The Municipal Art Society's legacy spans 105 years. Its impact on the cityscape is truly monumental. Even if the same cannot always be said of its taste in modern art.

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