“The collection belongs to the people of Baltimore,” says Walters Art Museum Director Emeritus Gary Vikan, when asked why the institution decided to take works from the collection onto the streets of Baltimore. “Art is meant to be experienced not just owned.”
In 2012 the Walters launched “Off the Wall”. The simple premise of the campaign was to put pieces of the Walters collection in public spaces beyond the walls of the museum. This seems like a very natural progression for the institution. The collection that spans 55 centuries and now includes 35,000 articles was initially bequeathed to the Mayor of Baltimore and Baltimore city by Henry Walters. The wealthy railroad titan, along with his father, had amassed a collection of nearly 22,000 articles and housed them in the beautiful buildings that line Mount Vernon square. In 1931 the Walters family gave the art and the buildings to the city. The buildings, the collection and all that it represents have been owned by Baltimore for over 80 years! Better stated, the city has owned the collection on paper for over 80 years. It is only natural that the Walters would get to a place where the ownership should go beyond documentation.
Enter Matt Fry.
Matt Fry came to Baltimore in July of 2011 for a job at the Walters. As the Director of Marketing, one of Matt’s major commissions is to remind people that the museum is theirs. While working in his previous job at the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), Matt helped with a project called Inside/Out. The DIA decided in 2009 to reproduce works from the museum’s collection and place them on the streets and in parks around Detroit. The project has become a HUGE success. It adds color to a post industrial city. It highlights the treasure trove that is the DIA. And it is a lot of fun for folks to find masterpieces in unexpected places. Now in its fourth year, over 80 works of art adorn the streets of Detroit. There are also numerous educational events and a number of tours that expose people to the city. The project is changing the landscape and changing minds.
As any good artist would do, Matt co-opted the idea for Baltimore. For Matt, it was fitting, as he sees many similarities between the cities. He would even bet that 10 folks from Detroit put together with 10 folks from Baltimore would get along famously. In the early months of his tenure Matt began scouting sights around the city and finding works within the Walters collection to match those sights. It is unclear if works or sights were selected first, but thought was always put into the curation. Syria, the Night Watch—a painting of lions walking through ancient ruins—is located right on the lion exhibition at the Maryland Zoo. Degas’ Before the Race can be found at the Horse You Came in on Saloon in Fell’s Point. There are many other pointy matches.
This was not a midnight vigilante process, this was the Walters. Matt gained legal permission from all of the “public gallery” walls, and forged partnerships with community advocates. The Mayor is a big fan and tweets delightful messages when she finds the art on the streets of her city. The process has been important to ensuring that ownership is experienced.
As a result, nearly two dozen reproductions of masterful works of art found a home on the streets and in the parks of Baltimore in 2012 and in April of this year the project won the coveted Gold ADDY Award. There are plans to place 10 more works by July of 2013 and another ten by January of 2014, including one on the Quintessential Gentlemen Barbershop on North Calvert. QG was one of Matt’s most coveted public gallery spaces. Beyond the presence of the works it is hard to measure success just yet. The Walters has given out over 10,000 maps of the locations suggesting an interest of exploration by people from Baltimore and beyond. QR codes placed on location with the works also allow them to track website traffic. And of course, there is the social media that could be used to document and measure interaction. None of this really measures if the public feels a greater sense of ownership, but isn’t ownership and belonging hard to measure anyway?
Matt is okay with that. He believes “Expression and creativity are essential human qualities that should be encouraged. Add in the ability for artists and organizations to create a dialog with people in the community, and you begin to see a whole new set of possibilities emerge. As far as Off The Wall is concerned, the desire to have some fun should also be encouraged!”
Have some fun and find YOUR artwork changing the landscape of YOUR city!