DSC_8269An interview with Doreen Bolger, Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art

The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) is home to an internationally renowned collection of 19th-century, modern, and contemporary art. Founded in 1914 with a single painting, the BMA today has 90,000 works of art—including the largest holding of works by Henri Matisse in the world.

 

Interview by Peter Davis

Photography by Philip Laubner

 

Doreen believes in art, Baltimore and people. She is fully awake, present and engaged. Doreen supports all forms of inquiry into the human condition. She takes in a lot of experiences. Offered by a diverse mix of artists, performers, and thinkers who are from or living in Baltimore, or are represented by their work here. Her riff on institutional relevance is masterful.

 

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Peter

Besides art, what moves you?

 

Doreen

People and this city…In a way it’s all connected, because I think that art expresses so much for people and about people. I think art and culture play a role in Baltimore that potentially could be transformative.

 

Peter

How do you see the transformation? If you had your way, in three to five years what would be different?

 

Doreen

First of all, I’d love to see all of us, citizens of Baltimore, have more confidence in the importance and beauty of our city, and to be more positive about its potential to be a grand city in a new way in the 21st Century. For people to see art and the creative class, technology, ideas, and higher education as the new manufacturing. As a new way for a city to support itself and grow.

 

Peter

What is the BMA’s purpose?

 

Doreen

The preservation of great art and using it both as a window and a mirror. As a mirror to give people insight into history and themselves today. As a window to look towards other places and times and learn from those people and those times.

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Peter

Being Director of a high profile, high brow institution is very demanding. Yet, you make time to attend many “low brow” events. What’s in it for you?

 

Doreen

There’s such an amazing opportunity to learn and to connect. The kinds of events you’re speaking of are probably visual art exhibitions, performances, theater, and lectures in unexpected places. What I find is an ecosystem of ideas and people and creativity in the city. By going outside the museum to different kinds of events I get to bring new ideas and people back to the museum.

 

Peter

How does an institution that glorifies things that are timeless survive in a culture that is driven by the “latest thing?”

 

Doreen

It’s the question of the century for all established organizations and institutions. The BMA as a museum is very fortunate. Traditionally we have connected very much always to the art of our own time, whatever time that was. If we look at Claribel and Etta Cone, they were patronizing living artists. It just happens that it was Matisse and Picasso, who we recognize now, in retrospect, were the two greatest artists of the 20th Century. They were very forward looking in forming their collections and in giving that collection to the museum. The museum has that tradition and continues until the present moment. When we re-opened the Contemporary Wing we had great works, great post World War Two works, great minimalism, and great conceptualism. But the Curator (of Contemporary Art), Kristin Hileman, also mixed with those works a lot of works by artists under forty years old. We’re always moving towards that change. You can say there’s a conflict between the establishment and change. Or you can say that an institution that evolves all the time is always thinking towards change, and is always looking for its change. And contains in what it does the potential for change.

Contemporary art is certainly one of those things. The embracing of technology and how that can offer us new opportunities, I think we have no choice but to embrace that. As you would know being involved with What Weekly. It’s the forward looking future.

I think the changes generationally that are going on are very important to the city and certainly to the Museum. How can we get young people excited about the tradition of art that we display? And how can we incorporate the new art that represents their generation? This is an evolution that goes on here every day.

 

Peter

What is your job? How does it work?

 

Doreen

It brings to mind a conversation my late mother had after we moved to Baltimore. She was playing bridge with some friends and one of these ladies said, “So, what does Doreen do all day anyway, the paintings are already hung?”

I think what’s interesting is that for art museums, unlike performing arts or symphonies, there’s the job of the artistic director and managing director combined in one person. So, defining what my job is; I need to be deeply involved in artistic questions, and I certainly have that background as curator from my youth. I’m involved in those questions and care deeply about them. I see them as central to our mission. I also have to be involved on the management side, on the fundraising, the budgeting, and personnel issues. How those two things come together—what is our mission, what is our artistic purpose, and how do we carry that out in a practical way—is what my job focuses around. And at a time like this, of such tremendous change, to guide the museum through this period of transformation, individually and as an institution with a renovation going on is pretty cataclysmic. And just as an institution existing in the 21st Century we’re all facing those changes.

 

Peter

What nucleus of skills, talents and characteristics make you the right person for the job?

 

Doreen

I never think of my work as work. It’s so much fun. It’s different every day. I think, maybe, I’m an optimist. That it never feels like work. It feels like I’m having a good time. If I have to work fifteen hours in a day it doesn’t feel like a burden. It feels like a great opportunity. Here at the museum every day something different and exciting occurs. I learn something new about people. Maybe that I think that work is fun is a characteristic of me. I really value that intersection between art and people. The ways in which having a great collection here at the museum really enable us to serve the community in profound ways, and to create experiences and memories for people. I enjoy that dynamic because it’s not a dry or abstract situation. It feels very real to me.

I think for the time I’ve been here I’ve become increasingly aware of how important it is for me to get outside of the museum and bring ideas and observations and people back into museum in kind of a never ending cycle. Community engagement would be a very high priority for me as a leader of the institution. And interest or concern or fascination with the ways the museum can play a role in the city at large for its citizens and the people who visit for what Baltimore is and can be.

 

Peter

Can you give us a scenario involving the intersection between art and people?

 

Doreen

I can give a really specific example, something that people could actually come to the museum and experience for themselves. Not something that is past or over but something part of the present moment.

For example, Sarah Oppenheimer’s sculpture that we now have installed in between the Cone Wing and the West Wing, and also between two floors of the Contemporary Wing enable people to get glimpses of works and fellow museum visitors at a distance. To get tantalizing peeks of what lie ahead and insights from a distance of how people relate to works of art. You’re voyeur in a sense.

Talking about the Sarah Oppenheimer piece and working it into the re-installation of the Contemporary Wing underscored for us the importance of openness, physical openness of views from place to place…within the Contemporary Wing and from a distance. So, part of our thinking as we worked through the design of the Contemporary Wing and renovating it and reinstalling it was to take the doors off. Now it’s open and people are lured in by the beauty.

 

Peter

More romantic isn’t it?

 

Doreen

Much more romantic—a pink Henry Moore! And a tantalizing view of the changing galleries beyond. The experience of a museum that becomes open…it becomes a metaphor for what we want the museum to be now, and as we move forward. The experience is not just with individual works of art but with the building, the staff, everything that happens to you when you’re in the space. You become a part of it.

There’s more intentionality and more thinking about what the outcome is, particularly as we create experiences.

 

Peter

Do you ever create friction as a way of sparking something new…an idea, a process, or a frame of reference.

 

Doreen

Without question visual artists throughout the ages have created friction in their choices of subject or in the ways in which they depict their subjects that could make people uncomfortable. For example the Felix González-Torres beaded curtain in the Contemporary Wing, which people love to pass through and feel the beads on their flesh as they go through. Children are drawn to it and can’t wait to twirl it around their finger. But then you find out that the artist was actually commenting on the experience of being treated for AIDS and his medical experience.

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Peter

Context is everything.

 

Doreen

Context is everything. You could go through that a hundred times and if you didn’t think about it or didn’t read about it, no one told you or somehow never knew, you wouldn’t have the same experience as you would have in knowing that as you went through it (the beaded curtains.) That work is not an in-your-face kind of work, yet it makes a really profound statement when you do fully experience it.

 

Peter

Is there any particular place or thing you return to that makes you happy?

 

Doreen

Oh gosh. There are! Things really basic like seeing a member of my family or dinner or a glass of wine. There are certain works of art that I return to again and again and again.

 

Peter

Share one.

 

Doreen

The painting in the museum that makes me smile the most is Chardin’s The Game of Knucklebones (Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin. The Game of Knucklebones. c. 1734. The Mary Frick Jacobs Collection). There’s a woman who is visible from just the waist up, she has her apron on, some pearls, so you know she can’t be a servant. So, she’s been sewing and put her needle in her apron and now she’s playing a game, like throwing a ball in the air. She’s and adult, but it’s a moment of rest, taking a little time to play in a serious world. It’s a woman doing an independent thing like that in the 18th Century. For all those reasons, I love that painting. And it’s gorgeous, beautiful and important picture. For me, it always gives me that little smile and reminds me that I should put the needle in my apron and take a moment to have some fun.

 

Peter

Much has been said and written about Baltimore’s art and cultural renaissance. In this transformative time where does the BMA fit into this landscape?

 

Doreen

The museum is a community anchor. It’s an institution were people with different kinds of opinions can come and exchange them safely. It’s free, so people come here anytime and have complete access without financial barrier to these incredible works of art that have been amassed by generations of Baltimoreans. So, I think the museum has a role as a place of convening, of socializing, gathering. It also has a role as a quiet place you can come and just think by yourself undisturbed. In the fast paced world that we live in it has multiple opportunities for people to make their own choices about why they come here and what they want to see. They can see an exhibition and learn something about a new topic or visit a familiar friend, as I would come by to see the Chardin on a grey day that I needed some cheering up on. In a world where we do exchange information digitally or electronically, to have a place where we can experience things with family and friends or by yourself is important.

 

Peter

Tell the BMA story as if it were a bedtime story to a 6 year old.

 

Doreen

Once upon a time there was a museum that was filled with 90,000 treasures. Instead of hiding them the museum shared them with everyone. You could come and pick out your favorite object and look at it for as long as wanted. Get close to it and look for the stories that you find in that work of art.

One of the magical things about museums is that we do tell stories. I could imagine parents coming here and telling their children stories or bringing stories up again about the experiences that have happened in the museum for them. I could imagine that being a bed time conversation between the parent and the child.

 

Peter

That would be nice.

 

Doreen

That would be really nice.

 

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  • Miriam

    This is a good interview and answers a question I’ve long wondered about; how does such a busy lady manage to go to seemingly every art event in the city. She’s amazing! Such a great encourager of artists.

  • mary jo gordon

    so good to hear the experience explained so well , Doreen truly is a most devoted leader and guardian of this treasure in addition, a tireless , eloquent communicator.