Although the charter of the Baltimore Museum of Art states that it is "not to be thought of as a mausoleum of art," one might be forgiven for thinking that; in its park-like setting, the 1829 John Russell Pope-designed building looks more than a little like a neoclassical tomb. But the art inside its austere gray shell (and outside, in two sculpture gardens) is anything but dead.
How else to explain the brand new pair of bright green "Doc Martens" boots made of "vegetarian" vinyl sitting next to an ornate 15th-century mosque lamp? Admittedly, that example of odd coupling is taken from the BMA's 1997 blockbuster British import, "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum," but there are plenty of other lively juxtapositions throughout the museum's permanent collection of more than 100,000 objects.
In one room sits a gorgeous but uncomfortable-looking Chippendale chair; in another, a sinuous Frank Gehry-designed bar stool of bent wood. And the row upon fragile row of miniature furniture on one floor is in stark contrast to the splendid and robust bellicosity of a floor-length Crow-Blackfoot Indian military headdress.
One of the BMA's fortes is modern art, and the core of this strong collection is formed by some 3,000 works, including a lot of early 20th-century European paintings, accumulated from 1898 to 1949 by Baltimore sisters Claribel and Etta Cone. Guided by the advice of their friend Gertrude Stein, the Cones, who never married, filled their small apartments on Eutaw Street with distinguished works by Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, van Gogh and others.
When Etta died in 1949, she left the family's art to the museum, which now claims one of the great Matisse repositories in the world, featuring more than 500 of the French painter's works, including at least one painting per year from his productive period between 1917 to 1940.
In 1994, the museum stretched its limbs into a modern, well-lit extension to the Pope building, tacking on a new wing built exclusively for its growing contemporary art collection. Not only did the add-on create more wall space for the "Hard Edge" canvases of Ellsworth Kelly and "New Image" work of Susan Rothenberg, but it freed up much needed space in the old building for its early American and decorative art displays.
The museum has a decent gift shop and boasts a top-notch restaurant, Gertrude's, which looks out on the woods that shade sculpture by such Hirshhorn faves as Gaston Lachaise and Raymond Duchamp Villon, among others.
But the BMA has always aspired to be more than merely a regional museum; and, as the behemoth lumbers into the 21st century, it may step on a few toes, but it is proving itself to be a world-class institution.
-- Michael O'Sullivan
Depending on where you live, a trip to Baltimore might be just as convenient as one to the Mall. And while it's easy to dismiss the BMA as just a smaller version of the National Gallery of Art, it has some features that make it a good family choice.
For starters, it's not as crowded as the National Gallery. Except at peak times or with the most popular shows, you can stroll from gallery to gallery in relative peace.
The collection is fairly broad, so you can touch a lot of art history bases: Old Masters, French impressionism, modern art.
A few things are particular hits with kids: The African, Native American, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian exhibit has a fearsome assortment of masks and other ritual objects displayed and lighted in a way that makes viewing by children easy.
The Cheney Miniature Rooms are tiny tableaux showcasing the best in the dollhouse-maker's art, with stools that short patrons can climb to peer inside. One little room is decorated like a Colonial-era drawing room, complete with infinitesimal deck of cards on a table and a thimble-size porcelain planter with daffodils.
The collection of the remarkable Cone sisters -- works by Matisse, Picasso, Monet and other giants of the Paris art scene -- may inspire siblings to devote themselves to a lifetime of collecting. Or maybe not.
Compared with the Hirshhorn's sculpture garden, which is more sculpture than garden, the BMA's is more garden: sloping paths through greenery, peppered with sculpture. Youngsters love running there.
Finally, the BMA has some of the best hands-on kids' art activities, as part of the free Freestyles events (the firstThursday evening of the month) and on some Sundays; call for details.
-- by John Kelly and Craig Stoltz
Words to the wise: Bring quarters for the parking meters.