Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

A museum-merger Baltimore should consider

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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.

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  1. lnwyd says:

    This is a patently ridiculous suggestion and it is not the first time it has come up. The institutions are different in collections and visions and certainly different in cultures, particularly when it comes to education and outreach. This is not a case of 1+1>2. A merged institution with their separate campuses would undermine both. Merged endowments make no sense. And the problem of blending professional staffs? Ei-yi-yi.

    I am a member of both museums. As an adjunct prof. of art history at MICA and a former art museum educator, I can see nothing but problems and neither institution is in a place where they can deal with five of more years of chaos in order to accomplish this questionable goal.

  2. Mark says:

    Tyler, I thought of this immediately after the press release came thru. They’re both city/state funded, however after the Barnes nightmare, the Walters falls into a similar scenario. It could work though, especially in the current economic climate.

  3. Gerald says:

    I agree that LACMA and the Hammer do not need to be administered or ran by the same board, but perhaps the museums should share collections, neither one has an outstanding European Collection, but together they have a very good one. The Hammer has a developing photography collection and a strong drawing collection. LACMA’s photography collection is better and its drawing collection is slowly getting better, but both, with the exception of german expressionism works on paper, are rarely featured at LACMA. Why not swap old master for photography and drawings? The Hammer and LACMA are both strong programatically in areas that don’t overlap. In this case sharing the collection (in both directions) would benefit both institutions.

  4. Stephan Jost says:

    Each museum and community has a unique story. Here in Honolulu the two art museums have joined forces, united the board, staff, collections and endowments. One July 2, 2012 The Contemporary Museum of Honolulu gave itself to the the Honolulu Academy of Arts. We did this without any layoffs and are seeing a great deal of public benefit. For many years people felt strongly that joining the museum should not be done. The boards spent almost two years looking at each issue and the impact on the public. At the end of the day when both boards voted to join forces it was unanimous. I would never suggest that boards do this quickly or in a crisis but I do think in some cases it is a wise move in terms of public benefit. The joining of the two museums has given a mandate for change and last month we changed our name to the Honolulu Museum of Art.

  5. […] While I was away, the Baltimore Museum of Art cut its staff by about ten percent through layoffs and by eliminating unfilled positions. On one hand, the BMA didn’t lay off staff during the Great Recession. On the other hand, between the unfortunate, improper renting of its art collection and this, it’s evident — and somewhat predictable given the steep decline of metro Baltimore — that the BMA is struggling. Idea. […]

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