$1 million gift swings open doors of BMA

September 11, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

The Baltimore Museum of Art has received a $1 million gift from a local philanthropist to support its new policy of free admission to the public that begins Oct. 1.

Suzanne F. Cohen, former chairwoman of the BMA board and a long-time supporter of the museum's programs, donated the money last November, during her tenure as board chair, to establish an endowment that will be known as the Cohen Family Fund for Free Admission, the museum said.

The BMA announced in May that it would offer free admission in the fall, but because it wanted to capitalize on the excitement generated as the first day of the new policy approached, it waited until last week to name Cohen as the first donor to support the initiative.

"Sue's gift is a thoughtful gesture that represents her commitment to the museum moving forward in a really vibrant way," said BMA Director Doreen Bolger. "We have a world-class collection, and Sue recognizes how important it is that everyone have access in the future to what we have to offer," Bolger added.

Both the BMA and the Walters Art Museum will be free starting next month. The museums jointly announced their new free admissions policies last spring, after Baltimore City and County each pledged to give an additional $200,000 next year to both museums, for a total of $800,000 in additional revenue. The museums also received an additional $30,000 each from Anne Arundel County this year.

At the time, museum, city and county officials said the new policy, modeled on similar initiatives elsewhere, including the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Cincinnati Art Museum, was intended to boost attendance, attract more diverse audiences and raise the city's profile as a tourist destination.

Cohen, 71, has served on the BMA's board of trustees for nearly 30 years. In the past, she has supported major exhibitions of contemporary art at the museum. She said the announcement of her gift was timed to coincide with the approach of free admissions in order to encourage other potential donors to step forward.

"The reason we chose to announce the gift now was it should be an incentive for others to join me so the BMA will be free for all time," Cohen said. "Free admission lets people go into a museum for a half hour, see one thing, and not feel guilty about not having used up [the price of a ticket]," she added. "I think people will just run in, look at a few things and leave when they want, which I think is a great thing to do."

In addition to her $1 million gift to support free admission, Cohen also has given the BMA another $1 million earmarked for contemporary art exhibitions at the museum.

In recent years, Cohen has made donations that supported several important BMA exhibitions of cutting-edge art, including Slide Show (2005), which explored artists' use of color slides, Cram Sessions (2004-2005), a series of exhibitions, lectures and hands-on projects that invited viewer participation, and Work Ethic (2003), which examined the changing nature of artistic labor. She has also donated funds that allowed the museum to acquire important works of art by artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Mel Bochner.

Cohen said that when she began as a BMA board member three decades ago she had little familiarity with contemporary art and artists. In particular, she remembers her reaction to two exhibitions she attended in the 1970s, one by the minimalist painter Frank Stella, the other by conceptual artist Bochner.

"I didn't understand one thing about it," she recalled of those shows. "I went home afterward and said, `They call this art?'"

Now Cohen hopes that free admission to the museum will enable more people to share the pleasure of learning about great art, especially contemporary art, that she has enjoyed over the years.

"Baltimore is a much more exciting city than when I grew up, and also much more culturally oriented," she said. "People today have a much better appreciation and interest in contemporary art, but there's also still great puzzlement about it. We see that as one of our very exciting challenges, to help people overcome that puzzlement."

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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