Kristen Hileman walks through The Baltimore Museum of Art’s Contemporary Wing, looking for signs of progress. The wing closed for extensive renovations almost two years ago, and, on this September afternoon, its 16 galleries are mostly empty. Wooden packing crates outnumber masterworks; a black pulley sits in the central gallery, where two Franz West sculptures rest on quilted packing blankets; and a stack of colorful panels by the collaborative duo Guyton/Walker lean against a wall in an adjacent gallery. “It’s coming along,” says Hileman, the BMA’s contemporary art curator. “It’s just an abstraction when it’s all blueprints and floor plans, but it’s starting to feel real. You can see the plan and vision taking shape.”
The renovations include key infrastructure improvements, but, perhaps more importantly, the new wing, which reopens November 18, also reflects changes in the museum’s overall philosophy and engagement with the city.
A pair of exhibition spaces underscores that evolution. In one, hooded Klan figures in Philip Guston’s painting, “The Oracle,” hang near Joyce Scott’s “Soul Erased,” a print series dealing with callous violence. Alison Saar’s “Strange Fruit” sculpture, an upside-down figure bound at the ankles, is suspended from the ceiling. As positioned by Hileman, they suggest connections and dialogue not only between artists, but also—because Scott is a beloved local artist and the Saar piece references a classic song by local legend Billie Holiday—between the museum, the city, and the local art scene.
Around the corner, towering pieces by Gaia, the street artist who put together the Open Walls Baltimore project in Station North, reinforce that point. Here, Gaia covered two walls with color portraits of residents in Remington (the neighborhood just south of the museum) superimposed over wheat-pasted images of black-and-white row houses.
Hileman points out that Paul Gauguin’s “Woman of the Mango,” a Cone Collection masterpiece, inspired the largest portrait and notes how Gaia incorporated the woman’s pose and Gauguin’s palette—a striking mix of oranges, yellows, and purple—into his piece. “It’s really quite wonderful,” she says, before heading toward the elevator.
On the way, she runs into Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen, local artists and founders of the acclaimed design firm, Post Typography. The duo has deep ties to Baltimore’s art and music scenes, from teaching at MICA and curating shows like OSAYCANYOUSEE at The Windup Space to designing show fliers and playing in Double Dagger, the widely admired, but now defunct, punk band. The BMA hired Strals and Willen to design an interactive gallery that will explore the theme of text art, using pieces from the permanent collection by the likes of Ed Ruscha and Bruce Nauman as examples.
“We want to make it a creative space,” says Hileman, “so we’re working with creative people to make that happen. Baltimore has an incredible creative community, and the BMA should help support it.”
Hileman, who came to the BMA in 2009, points out that the Contemporary Wing renovations, and the overall philosophy behind them, are part of a larger plan to make the BMA more accessible, relevant, and neighborly. The $24.5-million renovation plan includes enhancing three significant collections—Contemporary, American, and African—modernizing infrastructure, and creating engaging exhibitions. The work, which dovetails with previous renovations of the Cone Wing (2001) and the European galleries (2003), should be finished in 2014, when the BMA celebrates its 100th anniversary.
By that time, the Contemporary Wing will be 20 years old. When it was constructed, the museum simply needed additional galleries to accommodate its growing contemporary collection, because, as then-director Arnold Lehman noted at the time, too many works “were often in storage and out of public view—for lack of space.” But general wear and tear, changes in technology, and an increasingly diverse art scene dictated that changes be made.
In her office, where detailed floor plans of the galleries cover two walls and a green hard hat sits on her desk, Hileman ticks off what’s been done: The roof was replaced; The gray walls were repainted white (which should make the artwork pop out); The floors were refinished, a Smartphone tour was created, and a state-of-the-art lighting system was installed.
The lighting was especially important. “It used to be fluorescent,” says Hileman, “which isn’t ideal for exhibiting art. Now, we’ll have track lighting that can focus on individual artworks in an environment that is warmer. These things will help visitors feel more in scale with the artwork around them, and they won’t feel dwarfed by big, fluorescent fixtures and cold, gray walls.”
Besides the more intimate feel in the traditional exhibition spaces, visitors will notice the black-box gallery has been created with an eye toward showing more tech-based work. The overall intimacy and the improved black-box address emerging trends in the art world, because, as Hileman explains, more artists seem to be working on a smaller scale than in years past, and more artists are incorporating moving images, projected light, and sound into their work. “Now, we can effectively show this type of art, along with our bigger work, like the Warhols,” says Hileman, who notes that the Warhols still occupy a prominent spot in the central gallery.
In a bold move, the BMA commissioned artist Sarah Oppenheimer to execute an “architectural intervention” to help connect visitors to the galleries around them and to each other. With that in mind, Oppenheimer cut through the floors, walls, and ceilings and positioned sculpted mirrors in those spaces that will allow visitors to see into the other galleries.
“It makes you conscious of the other people inhabiting the space with you, people who may not even be in the same room as you,” says Hileman. “Because it occupies the ceiling and walls, you can’t help but interact with her piece. It transforms what can be a cloistered, or quasi-religious, museum space, into something that is consciously a public space.
“It makes you realize you’re sharing the moment with other people, people who could be from Baltimore or from anywhere in the world.”
Thanks to Hileman, they’ll be viewing more work by artists from Baltimore and around the world. Her curatorial scope encompasses not only the vitality of locals like Joyce Scott and Gaia, but also artists from the emerging global art scene, especially as they relate to work already in the permanent collection.
Hileman credits her predecessors for putting together such a strong collection of American art, which showcases the likes of Warhol, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, and Anne Truitt. “I have enormous respect for the collection and the curators who put it together,” says Hileman, “and that’s what is guiding me into the future. We have this great strength in American contemporary art, thanks to deputy director Brenda Richardson, who identified it as an area of focus for the BMA [from the 1970s through the 1990s]. I want to bring in work that is a reaction to that sort of work, or an extension of it.”
Hileman has, by her own account, been “introducing a little more international work into the collection.” The batch of recent acquisitions includes pieces from artists born in Argentina, Jamaica, Germany, Israel, and the U.K., and the Contemporary Wing’s opening exhibitions will include work by South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa. “It’s all about being more engaged with the artists and issues of our time,” says Hileman. “Art isn’t disassociated from what’s going on outside the museum’s walls. It’s inherently associated with what’s going on.”
Over the years, the BMA has been criticized for being too insular and even indifferent to local artists. Since Doreen Bolger’s arrival in 1998, that criticism has been muted, thanks largely to the director’s high-profile presence around town and annual BMA shows by winners of the Baker and Sondheim prizes. Still, Hileman seems determined to strengthen and expand the role of local artists.
The Gaia pieces will be on view until next May, and work by local artist Jimmy Joe Roche will go up later that summer. The Post Typography installation will last an entire year. “There’s been something of a paradigm shift at the BMA,” says Post Typography’s Bruce Willen. “They’re making a conscious effort to be supportive of the local community and become advocates of local artists. They recognize that there are incredibly talented artists working in Baltimore who don’t often get the recognition they deserve.”
“The BMA has made a great effort to show Baltimore artists making awesome work in their space,” says Gaia. “It’s now a tremendous resource for local artists, because Doreen has done a remarkable job making the tower a little less ivory.”
Bolger sees having more local artists in the mix as a win-win situation. “It makes the Contemporary Wing like a portal through which Baltimore sees the world, while the world in turn sees the great artists in our own community,” she says.
Willen also notes that exhibiting local work alongside contemporary masterpieces can lend a certain degree of legitimacy to that work. It also completes something of a circle, because plenty of local artists draw inspiration from visiting the BMA. Gaia is just one example of that. “The BMA has always been a staple of my life in Baltimore, especially when I was a student at MICA,” he says.
Going forward, we can expect more of these confluences. “Certainly, the artist community in Baltimore needs to interact and exchange information to get their work shown, push one another, and make challenging work,” says Hileman. “The BMA should be part of that process, and we will be part of that process. It’s all about continuity and access, rather than strict dividing lines.
“Then, we’ll see how art can make us stop and consider how we might respond to what’s around us. The art we exhibit can make us contemplate the world, and our city, in a more thoughtful way.”