Being Contemporary in Baltimore by Jillian Steinhauer
December 12, 2013
Last spring, the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore shut down suddenly, mid-exhibition, without warning to its director, staff, or artists. The board cited financial issues in its announcement and said that although the museum would reopen at some point, it wanted “to take the necessary time and effort to plan for [the] future.” That was in May 2012. More than a year later, the Baltimore City Paper reported the Contemporary’s return. And last week, the museum’s new website went live, along with a welcome letter sent out from the institution’s new director, Deana Haggag.
Changes have been made. The Contemporary Museum has returned to its original name, from when it was founded in 1989 by George Ciscle: The Contemporary. It’s also returned to Ciscle’s original model: a nomadic institution, without a permanent home or a collection. And it will forego curators for a rotating Curatorial Advisory Council comprised of local and national figures in the arts; the first year’s members are Elissa Blount-Moorhead, former vice director at Brooklyn’s Weeksville Heritage Center; Emily Blumenthal, manager of family programs at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore; Thom Collins, director of Miami’s Pérez Art Museum; Tom Finkelpearl, director of the Queens Museum; Rick Lowe, the founder of Project Row Houses in Houston; and Shamim M. Momin, director of Los Angeles Nomadic Division.
It’s an impressive lineup, especially for a small institution in a city whose contemporary art scene largely goes underrecognized. “It’s a bit about elevating Baltimore nationally,” Haggag told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “I have no shame in saying I think this is a wonderful city, and I also think there’s a lot of wonderful art outside the city, and there’s a lot of wonderful things happening here that the outside world doesn’t get to see. How can my museum play a role?”
Haggag only received her MFA from Ciscle’s Curatorial Practice program at Maryland Institute College of Art this past May, so the council also serves a more fuctional purpose. “I’m fresh out of grad school, and I have practically zero real art world experience,” she explained. “I literally needed to ask people questions. I made a list of my ideal council, and for whatever miraculous reason, they all said ‘yes.’ For these first few years, we need the help. They’re our eyes in the sky.
“In my head all together they’re like Morgan Freeman,” she joked.
Haggag isn’t entirely new to the Contemporary: she curated a show with the museum last year, just before the abrupt shutdown. In her own words, she then began “harassing” the board in October, asking them about their plans for the future. In January, she began an independent study with one of the board members who is also a teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and they proceeded to undertake “a three-month extensive landscape survey,” to figure out, “how do you even reopen? How do you do this ethically?” They sorted through the museum’s finances, spoke to institutional leaders, artists, and collectors in Baltimore in an attempt to figure out what was missing. The answer: something resembling what the Contemporary had originally been.
“When it was doing its best, it was nomadic,” Haggag said. “When it decided to get a building,” in 1999, “nobody filled that void.” Haggag and the board want to return the museum to those roots, in part to try and reach larger audiences in a town with a small, fairly isolated arts community. Being nomadic is also, of course, a practical financial move for an institution with a small budget.
Haggag shed some light on the murky circumstances of the museum’s closure last year, explaining that it happened just a few weeks before the Contemporary was set to move into “a building they couldn’t afford” — a building that the museum was going to have to pay to renovate, even though it would only be able to lease it for five years. “Somebody got very cold feet about moving into that building and marrying that kind of financial commitment,” Haggag said.
As for what the Contemporary’s programming will look like going forward: it’s still in development. But the museum is kicking off 2014 with a new speakers series, for which high-profile artists will deliver lectures at art spaces around the city. And in order to connect the national and local communities in a more meaningful way, Haggag has stipulated that visiting speakers must do studio visits with a handful of Baltimore artists while in town. “We’re trying to build those connections,” she said. “For a lot of those [Baltimore] artists, they don’t have access to those professional development resources anymore,” since finishing school.
Curatorial projects and programs for the Contemporary have yet to be announced, but Haggag said she and the board are extremely excited to figure out what’s to come. “Baltimore is a miraculous little city, and the possibilities seem endless.”