Making free with the art

Museum attracts old, new enthusiasts with open admission policy

October 02, 2006|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun Reporter

You could argue whether it was art - and many did, especially when looking at the whirring packing peanuts, the stacked boxes of Brillo pads and the balloon sculpture propelled upward with the help of a fan.

But nobody at the Baltimore Museum of Art yesterday was going to quibble about the price of admission.

Visitors could gaze yesterday at the French paintings, wander through the sculpture garden and ponder the intricacies of the mosaics - all for free. And for the first time in a quarter-century, the museum will be free every day.

The BMA and the Walters Art Museum are each getting $400,000 in a grant from Baltimore and Baltimore County to help keep admission free for at least a year. And Suzanne F. Cohen, former chairwoman of the BMA board, has donated another $1 million to launch a fundraising effort that will keep the BMA free for several years to come.

Yesterday's Art Blast party, the kickoff of a fall campaign to highlight free events at museums all around the city, brought thousands of people to the Baltimore Museum of Art. For the occasion, the institution near Charles Village dressed itself up with colorful balloons, a stage for live bands and tents for children to paint clay creations.

Some patrons hung out outside, swaying to the Caribbean music and savoring crab cake sandwiches or chicken on a stick. But even with the beautiful weather, many more seemed to be inside, getting a close look at the Matisses or pondering the meaning of some of the contemporary installations.

"It kind of legitimizes Baltimore in a way. It's like, now we have a free museum. The city finally stepped up and funded what should have been funded a long time ago," said Riddie Becker, a musician who lives in Charles Village.

Becker, who walks to the museum, plans to come a lot more often now.

Many people yesterday said they had the same intentions. Some hadn't been to the BMA since they'd taken a school field trip ages ago.

Inside, visitors tried to make sense of Dan Steinhilber's Front Room, an exhibit consisting of a few robotic vacuums and thousands of packing peanuts that was particularly popular with the under-10 set.

"Did you make that?" Nelson Murray asked a guard.

Murray wasn't sure it was art, but said, "Whatever it is, I like it."

The retired construction worker brought his family to the museum yesterday from their home in Glen Rock, Pa., because they were looking for something to do and they heard it was free. He and his wife, Sue, said they hadn't been since their daughter, Hannah, was born nine years ago.

Hannah and her sister, Marie, agreed with their father that the kinetic peanuts were cool, especially because the guards would not yell at them if they stood in the room and touched the art.

But she said she didn't get the Brillo boxes parked next to the exhibit on the contemporary floor. And no, she had never heard of Andy Warhol.

Outside, Chandler Crawley was sitting with his sisters, Brianna and Samarra, etching their names into clay that would later be fired in a kiln at Baltimore Clayworks. The three live nearby and were on their way to the park when they saw the tents and decided to come to the museum instead.

"I don't really get to see a lot of paintings. I've only been here one time, and it was with art camp," Brianna Crawley said. When they finished their clay drawings, they were planning to go inside.

Last year, about 250,000 people visited the museum, and officials expect a 17 percent increase in attendance now that admission is free. They're especially hoping that families that could otherwise not afford to come will visit now.

As city dignitaries prepared to cut a symbolic ticket, signifying the end of the admission fees, Cohen told the crowd that she had long dreamed of a day when people would flock to the museum, visit as little or as long as they wanted and wouldn't have to pay a cent.

She said she was thrilled that, even with the music, sunny weather and hands-on children's activities outside, many families streamed up the steps or through the sculpture garden to take in the collections.

"I love the fact that people are going inside and looking at the art," Cohen said. "The party's for fun. The art is for real."

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