Perhaps the contemporary artist Joyce J. Scott, featured in an upcoming exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, has said it best: "Art can be a life force." Ultimately, this is true of art from the past and present. At large city museums like the BMA, we are responsible for interpreting the full sweep of art history, whether it be an ancient Roman mosaic or a 1960s silk-screened image of a Campbell's Soup can by Andy Warhol. The art of our time is particularly powerful because it reflects who we are--our passions, conflicts, fears, delights, despairs, hopes, anxieties and much more.
So why is it so difficult to understand? This is a challenge we face at museums that collect and exhibit contemporary works, and is particularly true at the BMA, where we opened a new wing for contemporary art just five years ago.
Last month I was a guest on a television news program and spoke with a caller who commented, "It's not that I don't like contemporary art. I just don't get it." I hear this often--and it's why I believe a museum's mission is both artistic and educational. It's our job to help audiences feel a connection with the art we display. The goal is to create a memorable museum experience that goes beyond just viewing the art in the galleries. As a museum director, it's my role to ensure that the BMA is a vibrant, active place where you will think about, talk about, debate and be carried away by the artist's vision.
Contemporary art is new and unexpected. Sometimes it deals with subjects we'd rather avoid, such as racism, which is explored in "Strange Fruit," a figure by Alison Saar hanging in our new wing. The works are often made of materials we've never considered artful--from food and dirt, to found objects or even the elephant dung that has attracted such attention in New York. Sometimes contemporary art focuses as much on the idea that inspires it as on its visual expression.
What's more, visitors entering our contemporary wing may have just viewed an 18th-century American period room, a Flemish Old Master painting or an African Baga mask in another part of the museum. The obvious craftsmanship, skill and historical or cultural significance of these works make them seem more familiar. But what's to be made of Carl Andre's piece "Zinc-Magnesium Plain" installed on the gallery's floor (should we walk on it or not?) or Bruce Nauman's blinking neon work "Raw War"? (Can you turn it on and off?)
During a recent show of Pop Art here, an interactive display helped our visitors consider questions such as these. In our contemporary galleries we installed Warhol's "Silver Clouds" room, filled with floating Mylar balloons bouncing along currents of air. I remember walking in, hearing laughter, seeing parents and kids jumping up and down to bat at the silver balloons. The cloud room brought home even to casual visitors the point that Pop Art became famous by raising the most commonplace objects--such as balloons--to the status of art.
We're looking to create a different kind of memorable experience in a exhibition that will open at the museum in January. "Joyce J. Scott: Kickin' It with the Old Masters"--a collaboration between the BMA and the Maryland Institute, College of Art, one of the nation's oldest art colleges--features the multimedia work of one of Baltimore's most prominent living artists who is also one of the nation's leading African-American artists. Scott's fiber art, beaded sculpture and prints explore topics some visitors will probably consider difficult to encounter--racism, stereotypes, sexism and violence. She often cloaks these issues with biting humor and haunting beauty, all the while intending to provoke us, to make us think, feel--and act.
I won't be surprised if some visitors are challenged, or made uncomfortable, by what they see. That's why we have developed, in partnership with the artist, an extensive program to educate and inform visitors of diverse ages and backgrounds about the issues Scott explores.
The exhibition winds throughout the BMA's Beaux-Arts building, but visitors have options: They are advised about its contents at the outset, and the most challenging work is to be found deepest within the retrospective display. With the goal of helping visitors understand Scott's work, her themes and difficult subject matter are explained with wall labels, many of them in Scott's own words. We've put together a general visitors guide to the show and a special guide for families, and will jointly publish with the Maryland Institute a catalogue with essays by such scholars as Mel Watkins, an authority on African-American humor. An activity center for children and visitors of all ages will build on the experience of Scott's work in the exhibition. Easily appreciated activities such as storytelling and craft workshops will provide a forum for discussing the sensitive issues Scott raises in her art. There will also be an extensive roster of public programs around the exhibition. We presented these interpretive strategies to a community review committee composed of educators, religious leaders, and community members likely to attend the exhibition. All of this is aimed at serving our audience and representing the artist more effectively. This, I believe, is the central role of the museum.
The very best art invariably shows us something new, makes us think or shares with us the imagination of its maker. Great art connects the past with the future and breaks down cultural barriers. Once we learn to look more closely, contemporary art can expand our lives in countless ways.
Doreen Bolger is director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.