Art museums rarely merge. After all, there’s no reason that the Metropolitan and MoMA should be run by the same board or the same administrators. Not one. Ditto LACMA and the Hammer or SFMOMA and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. (Imagine!) But starting today, there’s a possible art-museum merger in Baltimore that makes too much sense for city and museum officials to ignore.
Yesterday Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan announced his retirement, effective 2013 or when a successor is found. Vikan has led the museum for 17 years.
If you don’t admire the Walters, you don’t know the Walters. (Which is possible: It is not the kind of place that hires a big-name PR firm to get itself in the New York Times.) Instead it has focused on its collection and its community: It has strong holdings in Asian, Islamic and medieval art and an eclectic European painting collection with numerous highlights. The museum has a highly-regarded conservation department and it has been a leader in putting its collection online and removing rights-related issues, making it much of the collection available for anyone to use in any way. (The Walters smartly initiated this initiative with its illuminated manuscripts collection, available on both its website and on Flickr.) Despite all this quality, the Walters still has spaces that embrace the quirkiness of its founders, liquor wholesaler and railroad magnate William Walters and his son Henry, and of its city. It’s hard to think of a museum doing more with annual operating expenses of a little over $15 million.
In fact, you might be surprised to learn that the Walters spends about $2 million more per year than its better-known uptown neighbor, the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The BMA has experienced both triumphs and challenges in recent years. In 2006, director Doreen Bolger pushed through a new policy of free admission for all — and successfully encouraged Baltimore city and Baltimore County to help fund it. The plan has worked: It has resulted in bigger and more diverse crowds. I see more young people in the BMA than I see at any other ‘historical’ art museum. Under Bolger’s watch the museum has expanded its world-renowned holdings of Henri Matisse and launched smart, important exhibitions on Matisse’s works on paper, a Franz West retrospective and a survey on the use of the slide carousel in contemporary art. Bolger has also spearheaded fundraising for a modest remodeling of the BMA and more. As part of the remodeling of the museum’s contemporary wing, Bolger’s BMA has commissioned a major Sarah Oppenheimer. (Female artists typically don’t get these types of institutional opportunities.) [Images: Piri Reis, Map of the western and eastern parts of the city of Venice (Venedīk) from "Book on Navigation," 1525. Collection of the Walters Art Museum.]
But in many ways, in recent years the BMA has slowed down. Today its exhibition-and-scholarship program lacks energy. For years many galleries have been closed, apparently because the museum hasn’t had the funds to staff them with security. (Blame the stagnant, even declining local economy, not the director.) The museum’s digital footprint is negligible.
Most unfortunate: In recent years the museum has embraced the sort of prize-awarding, local-achievers exhibitions appropriate for a community arts center but not for a significant art museum with a major collection. The tolerance that the BMA’s trustees have shown for this sort of programming speaks to their sense of limited possibility and to diminished ambition. The museum, its audience and its community deserve intelligence and national-level engagement, not pandering.
Still, the museum’s collection remains a highlight. Among American museums, only MoMA and the Barnes Foundation have better, deeper Matisse. It has a top-notch collection of late 19thC and early modern art. Its Antioch mosaics are among the finest ancient treasures in American museums. The BMA boasts an underrated photography collection, a fine African collection and while the BMA’s American galleries are stale and are much in need of a planned upgrade, the museum’s American collection has some strengths. [Image: Matisse, Pink Nude, 1935. Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.]
Note that there’s little collection overlap between the two museums. The two collections would complement each other in ways that would likely invigorate the staffs and interest their audiences. Shared collecting foci would become clearer strengths.
Programmatically a merger makes sense. But, sadly, it makes sense for another reason: Baltimore is a shrinking city. As a metropolitan area, it’s slowly being absorbed by Washington, its larger, wealthier neighbor to the south. Today the remaining wealth in Baltimore barely sustains two art museums, a major symphony orchestra and a world-renowned research university. Already the symphony has scaled back. As in other small, heavily industrialized Eastern cities, there is no civic turnaround in sight.
I’m told that the idea of merging the two museums has previously occurred to Baltimore power brokers. To be sure, challenges exist: It’s not easy for any museum to run two physical plants, let alone to merge two museums with two sites into one entity. Would Bolger, a 13-year veteran of the Baltimore directorship, much-admired for her commitment to Baltimore and to opening up access to the museum, be the right person to combine the two institutions and to run a merged museum? Maybe, but maybe not. [Image: Striding lion mosaic, Antioch, 5th century. Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.]
But the benefits far outweigh the potential hurdles: A combined BMA-Walters would elevate both collections and would increase the museums’s ability to do nationally important exhibitions, research and conservation and to bring in new acquisitions. Cost savings could be significant. Because both museums already have good relationships with Baltimore city, Baltimore County and with the state of Maryland, a combined museum would be could be an arts education powerhouse, a potential national model. Mostly because of the financial strength of the Walters, the museum would ‘launch’ with an endowment approaching $200 million.
It makes sense. Consider it, Baltimore.