Some admission prices for the Walters Art Museum were incorrectly reported in the Oct. 19 Weekend section. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, $5 for students and young adults ages 18 to 25 and free for children 17 and under. The gallery offers free admission on Saturdays from 10 to 1 and all day on the first Thursday of the month. (Published 10/20/01)
SATURDAY, AFTER three years of major renovation that reduced the main building of the Walters Art Museum to what director Gary Vikan calls a "concrete shell," the museum reopens to the public.
A mere 10 days ago, as the media gathered to tour the much-changed space -- the Centre Street building was originally built in 1974 in the fortresslike Brutalist style -- signs of dress-rehearsal jitters were everywhere. Over here, exhibitions staff members debated whether to stanchion off the one or two of the 39 reinstalled galleries in which artworks were still leaning up against the walls. Over there, display cases stood empty or out of place, like the one for the 13th-century Flemish choir book known as "The Beaupre Antiphonary," which had yet to be moved into its new home: an alcove suffused with late-afternoon light pouring through stained-glass windows from the cathedral at Soissons.
Other vitrines were marked with Post-it notes reading "Tilt coins up" or "Brush deck," the latter a reference to cleaning some tiny motes of dust -- almost imperceptible, except to the trained eye of a curator -- on the black background of a display. Stacks of reupholstered red cushions sat ready to be reattached to the auditorium chairs, while in a nearby gallery Baltimore art collector John Ford, whose Indian and Himalayan works are the focus of a special exhibition, gently tried to convince a curator that a 600-year-old fired clay sculpture of Vajravarahi was not hung straight.
All in all, the mood was remarkably calm as zero hour approached.
The most noticeable change -- and likely the first thing that visitors will see -- is a four-story, glass atrium that has been grafted onto the museum's main entrance like a foyer. Not only does it open what was once a dusky portal to the light of day but, creating a buffering airlock, it has the added effect of keeping heat and air conditioning where they're supposed to be.
"In the winter we heated Centre Street," jokes Vikan about the old days when the front doors opened onto the sidewalk. "And in the summer we cooled Centre Street. We paid more in heat and air conditioning than we did on our curators."
Along with new, easier to read signage, more restrooms, better lighting and numerous other facility upgrades, subtler changes abound. Old friends -- such as the well-known Rubens Vase, a fourth-century vessel carved from a single piece of pink agate that takes its name from the painter who once owned it -- are still on view, but in an altered layout that places greater emphasis on context than on chronology, and one that sacrifices quantity for quality. Although certain areas have grown -- the gift shop, naturally, has doubled in size, and a new gallery now shows off the museum's collection of Ethiopian religious icons -- there are actually fewer artifacts on display than before.
What prompted the changes, Vikan says, was a desire to eliminate the "visual cacophony" that characterized the display of the permanent collection, whose former impact he likens to listening to "a diva singing on Pier 6 in the middle of a hurricane." This, he says, is his museum's effort to get that diva (a collection that includes what he calls the best trove of illuminated manuscripts in the world) "into the Meyerhoff."
Those who remember the hurly-burly of some erstwhile exhibits will take his point. I, for one, will miss the old Arms and Armor Hall, a columned and vaulted-ceilinged space in the Charles Street Building (built in 1904) that has been transformed into a brightly lit cafe. Weapons and suits of armor are now integrated into galleries throughout the museum, based on the period and country of their origin. A nice replacement of sorts is the Knight's Hall, a new gallery that features a low-slung wood table (of medieval design but contemporary manufacturer) at which visitors can rest or play a game of chess.
Other nonstructural changes include four different audio guides boasting a total of eight hours of recorded guided tours, as well as significant adjustments to the lighting scheme. Indoor objects have generally been moved away from the windows (e.g., the museum's seven Roman sarcophagi, which are now dramatically top-lit to emphasize the relief carving), while figurative sculptures that were meant to be seen outdoors have been moved closer to natural light.
In addition to the reinstallation of the permanent collection, a number of special exhibitions accompany the grand reopening. Chief among them is "Desire and Devotion: Art From India, Nepal and Tibet in the John and Berthe Ford Collection." When the exhibition returns from touring Santa Barbara, Calif., Albuquerque and Birmingham, portions of the Fords' collection will be donated to the Walters.
True to the first half of its name, the show includes an ample number of buxom, bare-breasted figures, naked cowgirls and scenes of amorous union. It is, at heart, a valentine of sorts, a survey characterized as much by secular as by sacred love, and, as John Ford said in his opening remarks to the press, the passion it betrays above all is his passion for his wife, Berthe, whom after three decades he still describes as "this beautiful girl."
One unfinished miniature, in fact, depicting exquisitely rendered lovers in a dalliance, was a wedding present from her to him. It hangs close to some other rather NC-17-rated couplings inspired by the "Kama Sutra," including one depicting a posture of intense intimacy known as "kissing both the eyes."
But this is far from erotica. The exhibition's central thesis -- that there is something sacred about physical love as well as a concrete aspect to the sacred -- is well-illustrated here. That theme, as well as several pieces in this show, will be familiar to sharp-eyed and sharp-memoried viewers of 1999's "Devi: the Great Goddess" at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which also dealt with the cult of the eternal feminine (the Fords are nothing if not generous with their collection).
But the Ford collection is just part of a long story, which the Walters has always told well. It's just that now, its actors have the setting -- and the spotlights -- they deserve.
WONDROUS JOURNEYS: The Walters Collection From Egyptian Tombs to Medieval Castles -- On permanent view.
DESIRE AND DEVOTION: Art From India, Nepal and Tibet in the John and Berthe Ford Collection -- Through Jan. 13.
THE AMERICAN ARTIST AS PAINTER AND DRAFTSMAN -- Through Jan. 1 with possible extension.
FACING MUSEUM: DENNIS ADAMS -- Through Jan. 19.
EXPANDING WORLD VIEWS: A MILLENNIUM OF MAPS -- Through Jan. 20.
All at the Walters Art Museum, 600 North Charles St., Baltimore. 410/547-9000. Web site: www.thewalters.org. Open 10 to 5 Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 to 8 on the first Thursday of every month. Admission $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, $5 for students and young adults ages 18 to 25, free for children 17 and under; free admission on Saturdays from 10 to 1 and all day on the first Thursday of the month. Advance tickets available from Ticketmaster at 301/808-6900 (service charges). Same-day and advance tickets available at the museum. General admission to the museum is $5; $3 for seniors, college students and young adults; $1 for children ages 6 to 17; free between 11 and 1 on Saturdays and after 5 on the first Thursday of every month.
Public programs associated with the grand reopening include:
Saturday from 10 to 9 and Sunday from noon to 6 -- "ArtBeat on Centre Street." The free two-day celebration includes a parade, Cleopatra make-overs, hands-on art workshops and demonstrations and musical performances by such acts as Rumba Club and G. Love and Special Sauce. Food and beverages will be on sale in the parks of Mount Vernon.
Oct. 26 from 2 to 5 and Oct. 27 from 9 to 5 -- "Context and Community: Remaking the Walters." In a weekend-long symposium, Walters curators and conservators join international experts in a discussion of the newly configured and refurbished galleries. On Oct. 26 at 7, author and actor Ossie Davis presents the keynote speech. $100. For information or to register, call 410/547-9000, Ext. 307 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oct. 31 through Nov. 3 from 10 to 5 -- In conjunction with the "Desire and Devotion" exhibition, Tibetan monks will create and then ceremoniously disassemble a sand-painted mandala in the Renaissance Sculpture Court. Free with museum admission.
Nov. 10 at 5 -- Pratapaditya Pal, senior curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art at the Los Angeles Museum of Art, presents a slide-illustrated lecture on the John and Berthe Ford Collection. $10.
Nov. 15 at 7 -- Contemporary artist Dennis Adams and Director Gary Sangster of the Contemporary Museum discuss Adams's installation on the facede of the Walters Art Museum that is part of a collaboration between the Walters and the Contemporary. $15.
Nov. 17 from 2:30 to 4 -- Tile artist Rick Shelley talks about his work creating a mosaic map welcoming visitors to the museum's ancient galleries.
Nov. 30 at 7:30 -- Film screening: "Pather Panchali." $6.