Baltimore’s Contemporary Museum Reopens with New Director


When Baltimore’s Contemporary Museum suspended operations in May 2012, it was running “Baltimore Liste,” one of its most popular exhibition series. It was midway through this multi-venue, 12-artist show when the museum’s board announced that the museum’s fundraising effort to support its move to a new location had failed. The board abruptly canceled the exhibition and let go the director and part-time staff. Now, after a yearlong hiatus, and with no new home in sight—or even in the offing—the Contemporary is returning to Baltimore with a new board and a new director.

It is also returning to an old mission. The Contemporary is restoring the original vision conceived by George Ciscle, who founded the museum in 1989. Decades before the term “pop-up” entered the vernacular, Ciscle mounted temporary, site-specific programming at locations around Baltimore, including Penn Station. Only in later years did the Contemporary Museum adopt a more traditional posture, along with a tony Mount Vernon address. Problems mounted in recent years: According to publicly available tax documents, the Contemporary Museum’s revenue for 2011 fell short by more than $126,000—the second year in a row that the museum recorded a loss. By May 2012, the institution was closing in on a new location on Charles Street after its lease on Center Street—a block from the Walters Art Museum—had run up. But the fundraising failure led the museum’s board to reboot instead.

When the organization kicks off operations later this year under director Deana Haggag, whose appointment was made public in June, the Contemporary (sans Museum) will program the kind of experiential art that guided the organization in its early years.

“It didn’t feel like there needed to be another kunsthalle building showing contemporary art objects,” Haggag, 26, told A.i.A. by phone. Haggag recently received her master’s degree in curatorial studies from Maryland Institute College of Art, where she studied under Ciscle.

At present, and for the foreseeable future, Haggag is the only Contemporary staffer. There are no plans to bring on a curator. Instead, she and the organization’s board will form a national curatorial committee.

“Our current budget is very modest,” says board president Terry Squyres, a principal at Baltimore’s GWWO Architects. “We are in between $50,000 and $75,000 for the first year. The sky’s the limit for future operating budgets. We have big shoes to fill. We have a very prominent tradition.”

That tradition is one reason that Jeffry Cudlin, a D.C.-based artist and critic and a MICA faculty member, joined the Contemporary’s board. (He is one of four new trustees, including Squyres; 10 other board members are longtime trustees, and Squyres said that they intend to add several more.) Cudlin said by e-mail that Haggag was another reason.

“She is sharp as a tack, has limitless energy, really believes in Baltimore and knows contemporary art,” said Cudlin. “I think the Contemporary has a lot to offer, and will be at the leading edge of what’s going on in contemporary art in this city again. I think with Deana and our board we can do that.”

The Contemporary Museum has played a significant role in shaping the Baltimore scene, Doreen Bolger, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art and an advocate for Baltimore’s art scene, told A.i.A. by telephone: “[The Contemporary] adds a particular elite contribution to the ecosystem of institutions, organizations and DIY spaces that already exist in the city.”

Bolger cites two Contemporary Museum exhibitions as particularly relevant. “Mining the Museum,” a 1992 exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society in which artist Fred Wilson curated objects from the collection, was one that she “watched with admiration, as everyone in museums did.” For that seminal show, the artist—who represented the U.S. in the Venice Biennale in 2003—shined a light on the experience of Maryland’s Native American and African-American populations by remixing the Maryland Historical Society’s artifacts. Bolger’s other favorite Contemporary Museum program was the annual “Baltimore Liste” series. She mentions the May 2012 exhibition, in which the museum hosted solo shows by a dozen artists drawn from a pool nominated by seven Baltimore art galleries, mostly artist-run spaces such as Open Space and Area 405. That show’s run was interrupted when the museum closed its doors.

Restoring the Contemporary has been a process as methodical as last year’s hiatus was abrupt, according to Haggag and Squyres. The organization is now debt free. Its programming will be restricted to two shows per year, one in the fall and one in the spring, with an emphasis on artist residencies. “Not having a permanent location is going to serve our mission better now, budget notwithstanding,” Squyres said.

For Haggag, the focus right now is on collaborative programming. The first instance will be a lecture series that the Contemporary is launching in the fall. Haggag says that she is asking various Baltimore organizations—for example, Nudashank, an artist-run gallery—to nominate ideal speakers, whom she hopes to persuade not just to give talks but also to visit local artists’ studios.

“We’re trying to stray away from taking over a venue, but rather focusing on experiential projects in Baltimore, for civilians, pedestrians,” Haggag said. “The Contemporary lost that over the last 20 years.” More object-oriented exhibitions, at locations as yet undetermined, are in the works. Just don’t call it a pop-up.

“A lot of people are expecting different outcomes, but I wouldn’t say we are pursuing the pop-up model,” Haggag said. “Baltimore needs something nimble.”