Moving Display

The Walters shares its wealth, lending Barbizon landscapes to other museums

July 28, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun critic

T he Coming Storm is going away for awhile. So is The Goose Girl. And one of Alfred Sisley's Impressionist paintings.

Maryland's temporary loss will be Tennessee's and Pennsylvania's gain, when 32 paintings from the 19th century leave the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore next month to go on the road for nearly a year as a traveling exhibit titled The Road to Impressionism: Barbizon Landscapes from the Walters Art Museum.

Directors announced this month that the museum will close its 19th-century galleries from Aug. 18 to Oct. 10 so many of the paintings now on display there can be prepared for the tour.

Conceived by the Walters staff, based on a larger exhibit that first appeared in Baltimore in 2004 and 2005, The Road to Impressionism will open Oct. 18 at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tenn., where it will remain until Jan. 11. From there it will travel to the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburgh for display from Feb. 7 to May 3.

The exhibit is the latest example of a Maryland museum sharing its wealth by sending works of art to other museums that want to display them.

The Road to Impressionism is the 18th show that the Walters has organized since it launched its traveling exhibition program in 2000. During that time, works from the Walters have traveled to 33 museums in 20 states plus the District of Columbia and five foreign countries, including France, the United Kingdom, Germany, China and Canada. They've been seen by an estimated 2.7 million people.

It's one of many ways the museum fulfills its mission, said Nancy Zinn, associate director for collections and exhibitions.

"Our mission statement says that the Walters brings art and people together for enjoyment, discovery and learning," Zinn said. "That's not just in Baltimore. It can be anywhere. The traveling exhibition program helps make that possible."

In 1931, Henry Walters left 22,000 works of art to his native city "for the benefit of the public," noted museum director Gary Vikan. The Traveling Exhibition Program was established, Vikan said, to develop and circulate exhibitions that showcase its collection "for the aesthetic and educational benefit of museum visitors everywhere."

Sending works to other cities can be a bittersweet experience for some members of the public and for the museum's curators, who miss them when they aren't in Baltimore, said Eik Kahng, curator and head of the Walters' department of 18th- and 19th-century art.

"It's a joy to know that people all over the world can see what we have in Baltimore," she said. But "it always hurts a little. You hate to see the flower of the collection go away for even a few days."

The Walters is not the only museum in Baltimore that sends works of art to other cities. The Baltimore Museum of Art also mounts traveling exhibits, including portions of its famous Cone Collection and a series of monographic exhibits on contemporary artists such as Scott Burton, Bruce Nauman and Frank Stella. Its most recent traveling shows have included Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape and The Essence of Line: French Drawings from Ingres to Degas.

Since 2000, 17 BMA-organized exhibitions have been seen by nearly 2 million people in 17 states and three foreign countries. This fall, the BMA will present its 18th traveling exhibit, the first major U.S. retrospective on the work of Austrian artist Franz West, which will open in Baltimore on Oct. 12 and go on to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in March.

Works that travel become "ambassadors for the city," said Jay Fisher, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the BMA.

Whether they go to smaller towns elsewhere in Maryland or regions such as the Southwest or West Coast, they can help build an audience for the sponsoring museum and enhance its reputation as a major location for art, said Doreen Bolger, director of the BMA.

They also help attract talented curators to the staff, provide opportunities for scholarship and partnership with like-minded institutions, and put Baltimore in a positive light, Bolger said. "Positive stories about Baltimore, in the national and international press, are really important."

Effect on Walters

Many museums are asked to lend one or two works for a show. It's different when one museum is the primary or sole source of works that make up a traveling exhibit and has to close part of its own collection while those works are away.

That's the case with The Road to Impressionism, which is based entirely on paintings from the Walters' collection.

The idea behind the exhibit is to present works by early 19th-century French landscape painters who were the precursors to the Impressionists, artists known for painting outdoors and celebrating the virtues of color and light.

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