BMA's renovated Contemporary Wing redefines what belongs in a museum

$6.5 million project incorporates street art, multimedia projects, music

  • Kristen Hileman, curator of Contemporary Art, is reflected in a interactive sculpture titled "W-120301" by American artist Sarah Oppenheimer, who designed this and another piece in response to the existing architecture of the BMA.
Kristen Hileman, curator of Contemporary Art, is reflected… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
November 11, 2012|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Next weekend, visitors to the Baltimore Art Museum's newly renovated Contemporary Wing may find themselves staring up at a hole in the ceiling, their mouths gaping open like fish.

They'll have been hooked by a central feature of the $6.5 million building project — artist Sarah Oppenheimer's playful, gravity-defying illusion with the enigmatic name "W-120301." And who would blame them for staring?

How often can we watch someone appear to walk up a wall?

Oppenheimer knocked holes in walls and cut through ceiling to change the architecture of the Baltimore Museum of Art. And, that's not a bad metaphor for museum director Doreen Bolger's goal to knock down the walls between the museum and the community. This is just the first phase of the museum's ambitious spruce-up. The total project is expected to take three years to complete and will cost $24.5 million.

The Contemporary Wing's new look isn't just about improved lighting in the galleries or an updated fire suppression system. It's about redefining the kind of art that ought to be hung on — or in Oppenheimer's case, through — gallery walls.

The week before the reopening, as carpenters were putting finishing touches on the new wing, Bolger's excitement was palpable.

"We want people to know that this isn't their grandmother's museum," Bolger says. "It's their granddaughter's museum. We want art to be meaningful for people, for them to have experiences here they've never had here before."

So, for the first time in its 98-year history, the museum will display street art in the form of two life-size murals by the Baltimore artist known as Gaia, along with a "sound installation" — Bolger's words — with no obvious visual component. In other words, music.

There will be a new black-box gallery for videos and artworks created by light, and a new gallery dedicated to drawings and works on paper. Among the latter are more than 40 drawings of dancers by Henri Matisse that have never before been displayed in Baltimore.

From time to time, visitors may find themselves staring at a glassed-in rectangle connecting two galleries and find themselves wondering, "Is that a window, or is that an art exhibit?" They may pass through the rotunda and listen to a haunting ballad called "The Shallow Sea" sung by artist Susan Phillipsz and wonder, "Why is this being performed in a museum instead of a nightclub?"

"For me, those are exactly the kinds of questions that I hope will engage our visitors," says Kristen Hileman, the BMA's curator of contemporary art.

Even inside the rarefied world of museums, curators like Hileman who work with contemporary art face an unusual challenge. Specialists in Egyptian or medieval art don't have to rethink their collections from top to bottom every decade because each painting or sculpture in their specialty has already been created. But contemporary curators are the modern-day equivalent of 18th-century surveyors, charting new territory as they move through it.

So for Hileman, the renovation of the Contemporary Wing was a rare opportunity. Everything was up for grabs. Nothing was impossible. If Oppenheimer needed major structural alterations to the building to accommodate her new pieces, so be it.

"The museum has been willing to make very significant changes to their infrastructure for my installation, and it's been a fantastic experience," Oppenheimer says.

"They basically cut a hole through the concrete slab underneath the flooring, put in additional steel beams and rerouted the duct work. I think it's particularly fearless for a museum to integrate the construction work with the artwork and to allow an artist to be a central part of the renovation process."

And all those vertically walking people standing in front of Robert Motherwell's brown-and-black canvas from 1964 haven't simultaneously developed a superpower. A cleverly angled mirror embedded in Oppenheimer's piece makes them appear to be moving around the gallery vertically, instead of horizontally.

The galleries are arranged thematically, exploring such concepts as "the poetry of the everyday" and "the legacy of pop." Though there are more than 100 new works to look at, viewers can also visit old favorites by such modern masters as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Baltimore's own Grace Hartigan.

Hileman chose to display artwork with a human component. Too many people are put off by modern art, she says. They think it's cold because their experience with the cutting edge is limited strictly to conceptual pieces (though museum guests will find this type of work on exhibit, as well).

That human touch includes not just Matisse's drawings — in what seems to be three quick lines, the artist captures not just his dancer's musculature, but, seemingly, their souls — and Zwelethu Mthethwa's arresting photographs of the residents of his native South Africa.

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