Baltimore’s Contemporary Museum Suddenly Suspends Operations

Baltimore’s Contemporary Museum closed suddenly this month, shutting down in the middle of an exhibition run and posting a notice to announce the decision a few days later.

“In a unanimous decision, the Trustees of the Contemporary Museum have decided to suspend the museum’s operations at the end of May 2012,” the announcement — which is reproduced on the blog BmoreArt — begins. It goes on to list the details of the suspension: The Museum ended programming on May 16, will lay off Executive Director Sue Spaid and the museum’s four part-time staff members at the end of May and has canceled a planned renovation of and move to a new, permanent home.

The trustees’ note cites the economy and difficulty with fundraising as the reasons for the decision. It also says, in the typically murky language of this kind of announcement, that the museum will reopen in some form, sometime in the future:

Over the past six months, the Trustees have come to realize that the most prudent course of action to ensure our future success is to take the necessary time and effort to plan for that future. We have determined that the only way to do this is to make this our sole focus for the immediate future.

In a phone conversation with Hyperallergic, Sue Spaid reiterated that the closure is temporary, although she also said she only knew what was in the press release. “They [the board] told me basically what they told the world,” she said. “I can’t explain the decision. They didn’t involve me in the discussion.”

Spaid continued: “I think the reason why most people seem so surprised is they don’t really realize how actually powerful boards are. I think they assume the power resides with the director.”

Asked if she saw any warning signs that might have signaled what was coming, Spaid answered no. As for her position, she speculated, “The only thing I can think of is that they probably did need me out of the way in order to pursue whatever ideas they want, because I think the contemporary is great, and I think it can exist. I have an alternative perspective to the whole thing.”

An editorial in Tuesday’s Baltimore Sun offers a brief, heartfelt history of the Contemporary, which was founded by George Ciscle in 1989. The organization actually spent its first 10 years without a home, holding pop-up exhibitions around the city. The Sun writes:

For a time it resisted even being called a “museum” — it was known then simply as The Contemporary — and it hung vagabond shows wherever space could be found, be it in a strip-mall storefront, a vacant office building next to The Block or a long-abandoned city bus garage. … [T]he Contemporary devoted itself entirely to a single, monumentally ambitious goal: Bringing what it considered the most provocative, intellectually stimulating and visually challenging artworks of our time to Baltimore audiences.

The Contemporary embraced more traditional museum-dom and found a permanent space in 1999. It remained there until last October, at which point it resumed mounting temporary exhibitions in advance of its impending move. This month the museum was running a second installment of its “Baltimore Liste” show, a series of week-long exhibitions for emerging local artists. The series was scheduled to run through May 27, but the blogger at BmoreArt writes that when she arrived on May 19, the doors were locked. Hanging on them was a hand-written sign that read, “The Baltimore List has been de-listed until further notice.” The announcement of the museum’s closure came the next day.

According to Spaid, the board has claimed that they shut down the Contemporary mid-exhibition because Spaid made plans to travel to Cincinnati to install an exhibition she’s curating there. “There’s not really a direction connection between the closing of the show and my plans to go out of town,” she said. “When I made my plans, it never occurred to me that they would affect the show. I didn’t understand that when I got my airplane tickets.”

“I’m not a victim here,” Spaid added. “I feel bad for my staff, and I feel really terrible for the artists that their show was closed early.”

Hyperallergic attemped to contact Contemporary Board President Bodil Ottesen but received no response. We did get in touch with Gary Vikan, outgoing director of Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, who offered this reminiscence via email:

The Contemporary did some truly wonderful things over the years, and we enjoyed some great collaborations. Going for Baroque was a landmark for the Walters, and for me as new director at the time (1995). We also collaborated on a Louise Bourgeois (intervention) show in 2004 which was truly wonderful for us. The Contemporary draws on a very special energy and fills a very special niche in Baltimore. Both add up to: art right now.

I hope they come back.

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