Generous women made the BMA what it is today

Female benefactors get much of the credit for the look of the museum building and its contents

Critical Eye

January 21, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Philanthropist Dorothy McIlvain Scott's $10 million pledge to the Baltimore Museum of Art continues a long tradition of leadership by women who have helped shape the institution's collections and character.

Scott's gift, announced last week, will allow the museum to revitalize its collection of American furniture and decorative arts and support exhibitions and programs in the American wing.

With her gift, Scott joins a distinguished company of female philanthropists whose generosity made a strategic difference in the museum's growth and development.

They include Claribel and Etta Cone, Mary Frick Jacobs, Saidie A. May and Blanche Adler. With Scott's gift, four of the seven wings in the BMA's building on Art Museum Drive at 31st and Charles streets will be named after women.

Women have also played a crucial role as administrators and curators at the BMA. Florence Levy and Adelyn Breeskin were pioneering female directors at a time when most museums were run by men. Curators Gertrude Rosenthal and Brenda Richardson oversaw major acquisitions that helped put the BMA on the map artistically.

"These were the women who charted the priorities for the institution as it grew," says Jay Fisher, the BMA's deputy director for curatorial affairs. Referring to Levy and Breeskin, he added, "In those days it was fairly unusual for women to hold those kinds of positions."

The Cone sisters' contributions included the magnificent collection of artworks by Picasso, Matisse and other 20th-century masters that have made the BMA a mecca for students of early European Modernism.

But that was not all. In addition to the 161 paintings, 79 sculptures, 685 prints and 398 drawings the sisters donated to the museum, they also made gifts of illustrated books, fine furniture, skeleton keys, mortars and pestles, costume jewelry, fabrics and antique lace.

Avant-garde artists

Saidie A. May and her sister, Blanche Adler, knew the Cones and were inspired by their efforts but chose to pursue a different and - for their time - far more adventurous path.

Their purchases of avant-garde artists like Joan Miro and Piet Mondrian shocked the BMA's conservative, male-dominated board of trustees, which refused to accept their gifts of artworks that it considered too far out. (Miffed when the board rejected an early cubist painting by Picasso, May offered it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which snapped it up.)

May also donated an impressive collection of Renaissance painting and sculpture and funded construction of the museum's wing that today houses its special exhibition galleries and conservation lab.

"As women, they formed friendships with each other, and often they found role models in each other," says the BMA's current director, Doreen Bolger. "At the same time, each one had [her] own individual taste and perspective. They carved out separate areas of interest where they could contribute to the museum."

Mary Frick Jacobs, for example, was a founding trustee of the BMA who, in 1937, funded the construction of a wing in the museum to house her collection of Old Master paintings.

Jacobs imprinted an indelible stamp on the museum early on, when she insisted that the board hire architect John Russell Pope to design the BMA's sleek, neo-classical building in Wyman Park, which opened in 1929. A few years later, Pope was called back to design the wing that bears her name. (After his Baltimore commissions, Pope went on to design the National Gallery of Art in Washington.)

Another early female benefactor was Virginia White, an avid historic preservationist whose 1933 gift of an important collection of Maryland silver helped launch the BMA's American wing of fine and decorative arts.

It was said that White built much of her collection by going door to door around the city and its environs, offering to buy flatware, vessels and other silver pieces from owners who considered them to be old-fashioned.

Beefed up collection

Many of the gifts the BMA received from women were the direct result of the relationships these benefactors established with the museum's female directors and curators.

Florence Levy, the BMA's first professional director who served from 1923 to 1927, was instrumental in working with local lenders such as Blanche Adler and the Cone sisters to present exhibitions at the museum that were drawn from their collections.

But it was Adelyn Breeskin, the museum's first curator and later its director, who inaugurated the BMA's major collection-building era.

Breeskin's long tenure at the museum, which lasted from 1930 to 1962, saw the acquisition of the Cone, Adler and May collections, as well as the Lucas Collection of 19th-century French art and the Garrett Collection of Old Master drawings and prints.

"One of first things she did when she arrived as curator in 1930 was to secure the transfer of the Lucas collection from the Maryland Institute College of Art to the BMA," says Fisher. "Then, in 1933, she secured the loan of the Garrett collection of 20,000 Old Master prints, which were then on loan to the Library of Congress in Washington. Adelyn convinced the Garrett family to return them to Baltimore at the BMA. So, in the first three years she was here, she brought 40,000 prints into the collection."

The Breeskin years also saw the construction of the May and Jacobs wings and the growth of a professional museum staff.

After Breeskin was appointed acting director in 1942, she hired Gertrude Rosenthal, a refugee from Nazi Germany, as chief curator. Together, the two women made the BMA a major venue for the art of their time, establishing a tradition that Brenda Richardson, who followed Rosenthal as chief curator, expanded into the contemporary era.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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