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BMA reopens renovated American Wing

By AMANDA AUBLE | November 20, 2014

With the opening of the restored Merrick Entrance early Tuesday morning, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) presented an exclusive tour of the newly renovated Dorothy McIlvain Scott American Wing led by Senior Curator of Decorative Art and American Painting & Sculpture David Park Curry.

Walking up the colorfully decorated steps that promote the Museum’s 100th anniversary celebration to the Merrick entrance, members of the press were welcomed to breakfast and remarks from key players in the museum’s renovation.

BMA Director Doreen Bolger began the introductions and highlighted the timely accomplishments the renovation project has recently achieved.

“We have so much to celebrate, the museum’s 100th anniversary, we opened the Merrick Entrance after 32 years and, of course, the Dorothy McIlvain Scott American Wing, which was under renovation for two years. These are all major milestones in the museum’s $28 million renovation,” Bolger said.

Before touching on the American Wing, Bolger discussed the architectural achievements the museum has reached.

Architect John Russell Pope, whose credits also include the National Archives and Records Administration building and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., designed the BMA in 1929. To take on the challenge of following Pope’s design and creating a more welcoming visitor space, the museum entrusted Steve Ziger from Ziger/Snead Architects.

“It’s quite an honor and a little intimidating to follow in Pope’s footsteps,” Ziger said.

Not only did the new entryway show a revived, lighter atmosphere, but Ziger seemlessly includes some practical amendments. A notable challenge included incorporating modern-day, efficiently functioning sprinkler systems into the highly classical coeffered ceiling.

“It’s his reverence for John Russell Pope and his own considerable design talent that has been brought to make this transformation subtle but at the same time very bold,” Bolger said.

With Zieger’s design completed in the renovation, the museum now has a more permanent home for its American Art wing.

“I’d like you to know that American art here at the BMA is one of the finest collections on the east coast,” Bolger said. “We have about 30,000 American items in our collection. That’s sort of a staggering number.”

Formerly the curator of American Arts at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Curry joined the BMA in September 2005. Curry has more than 20 years of curatorial experience coordinating collections of American art in three public art museums: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution (1981–1983), Denver Art Museum (1983–1990), and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (1990–2005).

“He has brought so much to this project in terms of his vision, his knowledge and tremendous experience from a really truly distinguished career. So welcome, David,” Bolger said.

Despite the museum’s massive collection, Curry addressed the tour group with a hopeful attitude. He encouraged the group to break off and explore the collection to find any pieces that may elicit a personal appeal.

“I have a few little takeaways before we go into the galleries themselves. There is... way more than anyone has time to absorb,” Curry said. “We hope that each of you will find things you’ll fall in love with quite personally.”

One of the most exciting new features of both Ziger’s architectural design and Curry’s curatorial choices is the gallery’s cohesive flow. Visitors can choose from one of three entrances: 18th century, 19th century or 20th century art. Although viewers can choose their own journey through time, Curry decided to direct the group first through the 18th century art. He asserted that most visitors will probably be drawn to the 20th century art first, sticking to what they find most like art of their own time.

“What’s been fun for me and fun for me to see others respond to is how the works of art are talking to themselves,” Curry said.

The 18th century section of the collection boasted beautifully restored furniture including sofas, clocks and armoires. Curry’s choice to juxtapose household items alongside paintings added a very domestic feel to the rooms.

“Many of the things you’ll see in the galleries once lived in people’s houses here,” Curry said.

Moving into the 19th and 20th century art is like moving in a “Rubix cube fashion,” as Curry puts it, since viewers can find a flow but also get lost looking backwards.

Highlights of the 20th century collection included a decorative moblie, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Pink Tulip (1926) and a wedding jar that was also featured in a painting.

After the period guided displays, Curry had the group cross the main foyer into the Maryland inspired art wing. The main room contained sculptures, and paintings covered the walls ranging from classical portraits to abstract landscapes.

“The first 50 years of collecting here focused on Maryland. In the second half of our Museum’s history, we began to expand into mainstream American Arts.”

A very unique feature of the newly refurbished BMA is its period rooms from four historic Maryland houses. Stepping into the rooms like the Habre de Venture parlor with its entirely painted interior viewers are transported back to the 18th century. However, instead of simply being accurate to the time period, the room highlights painted furniture from all eras, including a chair made entirely from yellow pencils.

The oval room from Willow Brook house was especially stunning with its robin’s egg blue walls and elaborately molded ceiling. Built in 1799, the room was acquired by the BMA before the 1965 demolition of the house.

Overall, Curry hopes that his juxtaposition of American art will not just provide visitors with facts.

“Our new galleries are involved in invitation as well as information, and what we are hoping will happen here is that people make many a return visit,” Curry said.

A small portion of the group followed Ziger out into the cold to view the new East Entrance, which features enhanced lighting and a more welcoming space.

“We’re trying to do all we can to provide visitors with a new environment and engage them with fantastic collections that the museum has and new ways in which we are presenting them,” Bolger said.

As for the future events scheduled in the museum’s renovation timeline, the African and Asian art galleries are scheduled to be completed by April 26, 2015. Nonetheless Bolger encouraged press members to also stop by an ongoing collection in the contemporary wing to view the newest exhibition by Dario Robleto titled Setlists for a Setting Sun.

Unlike Impressionist pieces and other Classical Art wings, Robleto works with found objects like delicate film reels and bleached vinyl. Robleto is inspired by the BMA’s proximity to the Space Telescope Science Institute on the Hopkins campus, as well as Baltimore’s nautical history. His pieces will be on display to the public until March 29, 2015.

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