African art is loved - and celebrated

Co-founder of the African Art Museum of Maryland nurtures a dream and is marking the museum's 25th anniversary

November 11, 2005|By SANDY ALEXANDER | SANDY ALEXANDER,SUN REPORTER

Twenty-five years ago, Doris Ligon was riding in the car with her husband, Claude, when she said she was interested in starting a museum of African art.

When they reached their Columbia home, Claude called a lawyer about setting up the nonprofit organization, and the African Art Museum of Maryland was incorporated that year, 1980.

"He was someone you didn't mention an educational pursuit to without being serious," said Doris, who is director of the museum and for a quarter-century has been its driving force and main worker.

Claude, 69, died in January, and tonight friends and supporters will gather at Historic Oakland in Columbia - where the museum has offices and galleries - for a celebration of the museum's 25th anniversary.

Claude will be honored posthumously with an award, and the museum will unveil its latest exhibits at a reception with food, drinks and entertainment. Since January, the museum has had only partial exhibits open to the public as its staff and volunteers have sorted and unpacked everything that had to be stored during renovations to Historic Oakland last fall.

As its leaders look ahead, the museum has a substantial collection of more than 2,500 pieces of African art. But Doris, 69, is ready to hand off responsibility for the day-to-day operations, though funding is not available to pay a full-time director.

Like many art organizations, the museum struggles to fund all of the exhibits, educational programs and outreach activities its leaders would like.

"We know what to do," she said, "but it's having the money to do it."

Over the years, ambassadors, elected officials and other community members have donated and lent art to the museum.

The current show includes elaborate carved wood masks, beaded clothing, paintings and photographs, an 8-foot-tall corn-stalk dance costume, metal tools, water vessels and furniture, most of which was given to the museum by collectors.

For example, Harold Courlander, an expert in African art, was attending his daughter's wedding in the early 1990s at Historic Oakland when he saw the museum. He later donated his collection of 202 tiny, one-of-a-kind brass figures that were used primarily in West African nations to weigh gold dust.

A few years ago, another fan of the museum invited Doris to his home to give her a carved basket from the former republic of Tanganyika in East Africa. It has an ebony base and a handle of carved ivory elephants and hippopotamuses.

Doris said she has had offers of two more collections, but the museum had nowhere to store them.

She said she and her husband worked hard to build such beneficial relationships with the community.

"We're ethical; we're honest, and we're poor," she said. "Our success to this point has been because people are sympathetic to what we do."

Board member Abram Engelman agreed. "The Ligons have been doing this for a long time. People know their love of the arts and the culture, and they're such genuine people."

The museum, Engelman said, "serves a really cultural and educational component in the larger community."

He noted that Morgan State University and the Baltimore Museum of Art have African art collections. But, he said, "A lot of people feel comfortable in the much smaller surroundings. ... Doris makes it very personal for people."

The museum's first incarnation was as a traveling exhibit that Doris took to schools.

After displaying its collection periodically at Howard Community College and other locations, the museum spent five years at Rockland Art Center (now Howard County Center for the Arts), where one room served as exhibit, administrative and storage space, Ligon said.

In 1989, the museum moved to Historic Oakland. Five years ago, the organization added a first-floor gallery that is open to disabled patrons during limited hours because the main galleries are accessible only by stairs.

The museum also plans to open a branch in Baltimore next year.

But even as Doris pushes ahead with ambitious plans for the museum, she said she feels the loss of her husband from the organization.

"It is my dream that my husband nurtured and worked right along side with me until he died," she said. "He wrote grants, was our biggest fundraiser, and he was the one who put things where I wanted them to be put."

Claude also organized the Baltimore-Washington JAZZfest, which was a fundraiser for the museum.

"In order to carry on, we need [people] to do all that my husband was doing," Doris said. "One person cannot do that."

More tasks are falling to the board of directors, which had welcomed several new members, including the Ligons' son and daughter.

This week, Doris was working long hours in the gallery, sliding the heavy pedestals into place with her hip and trying items in different locations to see what looked best. It was a project she said would likely last until minutes before the gala tonight, thanks to her perfectionist streak.

"It's not going to be all I want it to be on the 11th, but it will be the best I can do," she said.

Quoting one of her favorite mottoes, Doris said, "If it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger. ... I think right now I'm as strong as I want to be."

But later, she said the opportunities the museum has giver her, including travel to Africa and teaching the community, have made it worthwhile.

Doris remains optimistic that the museum will find a way to keep growing.

She said, "We're doing it and hoping it will last a million years."

The African Art Museum of Maryland, at Historic Oakland, 5430 Vantage Point Road, Columbia, will hold its 25th anniversary celebration from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. today. Tickets are $50 and available from the museum. Information and hours: 410-730-7106 or www.africanart museum.org.

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

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