Big Fish: A Conversation With Doreen Bolger As the BMA’s Centennial Nears

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Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post
BMA Director Doreen Bolger. Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

Since taking over as Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art 16 years ago, Doreen Bolger has presided over an era of carefully thought-out change. There was the renovation of the Cone Wing in 2001, the initiation of several scholarly traveling exhibitions, and the elimination of general admissions fees in 2006 —as well as everyday crises like this year’s return of the stolen Renoir.

For what seems like “a long time now,” Bolger has been overseeing the $28 million renovation of the museum building, which began in 2012 with the reopening of the Contemporary Wing. On November 15th, the BMA will celebrate the reopening of the American Wing, and, not coincidentally, its first 100 years, with a sold-out gala followed by the appropriately dubbed “Party of The Century.” The BMA’s historic front Merrick Entrance—those imposing steps, flanked by lions, which have stood strikingly empty since 1982 —will once again be open to the public, and the grand lobby, designed in 1929 by noted architect John Russell Pope, will again extend its impressive welcome. The now familiar Zamoiski East Entrance has had its own renovation, and will continue to be an option for museum goers.

Even more important to art lovers than the re-orienting of the museum space, will be the official opening on November 23 of the newly renovated Dorothy McIlvain Scott American Wing —showcasing more than 800 pieces of art including several galleries of American masterpieces and a gallery devoted to the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany. (, on your smartphone or BMA’s tablets, has some truly fascinating stories about 50 of these.) Despite a lagging economy and chronic lack of funding, which forced layoffs of 14 full-time staffers in 2013, the BMA looks as good as ever, a tribute, at least partly, to the woman at the top.

At 65, Doreen Bolger is a pleasantly un-intimidating art museum director. She wears her credentials —longtime curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Director of the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design and author of several important books in her field (19th century American painting) —lightly, making it clear that she is as relaxed and down-to-earth as her adopted city. Known for her tireless support of contemporary Baltimore artists, she has two adult children, and lives in an art-filled home in Charles Village.

Ok, let’s get right to it. Whose collection is worth more, Baltimore’s or Detroit’s?

Both are priceless, they’re different collections with different strengths. We don’t think of a collection’s value in those terms, we just want to make sure it’s here for everyone to enjoy.

When did the planning process for the BMA Centennial begin? Who, besides BMA staff, have been your go-to advisor on the renovation?

Well, you’re only a hundred once – it deserves a major celebration! I would say we began thinking about it after we celebrated our 90th anniversary. I have been incredibly fortunate in the members of the Trustee Renovation Steering Committee, and the input of its designers, architects and real estate professionals has been invaluable. Stiles Colwell, the former head of the Board of Trustees, is a key advisor.

 Why did the museum stop using the Merrick entrance in the first place?

 You have to remember it was a different time. In 1982 the East Wing had just been added, which was a tremendous achievement. It gave us the BMA Gift Shop, the restaurant, and the Meyerhoff Auditorium, as well as being handicapped accessible. Plus, the scale of the Merrick entrance was such that with the technology available at the time, there was no way to control the environmental influences – temperature, humidity – needed to conserve the art. It was a sensible choice for that era.

Today, the museum holds over 90,000 works, and we have to ask which is your favorite child?

 It’s a painting by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, c. 1734, Knucklebones. It shows a young woman who’s been working. She’s stuck her needle into her apron and is taking a break to play this game, Knucklebones, which involved a ball and pieces of bone. It’s an important painting, and it reminds me of the importance of putting down the work, and taking time to play.


What is your fantasy, price is no objectacquisition?

 Oh wow. A cubist work of Picasso. Almost any of them – there just aren’t too many hanging around.

What’s the operating budget of the BMA, and where does the money come from?

 Every year is different. Our operating budget this year was $11.8 million. Twenty-six percent of that comes from drawing on the endowment, which is $98.6 million. Another 30 percent or so that comes from government sources, including the Maryland State Arts Council and Baltimore City. Fundraising is another 21 percent and earned income – the gift shop, touring exhibitions – is another 21pecent.

 Is fund-raising something you enjoy, or just a necessary aspect of the job?

I actually kind of enjoy it. It’s like being a matchmaker in a way — making an introduction, and watching a romance unfold. There’s a wonderful moment when you can match a donor’s interest with what the museum needs, and to see the sudden passion spark, to be a part of it, is exciting.

You are known for your large personal collection of contemporary Baltimore artists. Any advice for someone who just “doesn’t get” contemporary art?

Try harder! There us so much available to us here in Baltimore! Talk to the artists, talk to the gallery owners, join FOMACA [Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art] at the BMA.

Four leaders of the Baltimore cultural community’s great institutions are women you at the BMA, Julia Marciari-Alexander at the Walters, Rebecca Hoffberger at the Visionary Art Museum and Marin Alsop at the BSO. Is it safe to assume that the art world in America is free of sexism?

Well, and don’t forget Carla Hayden, CEO at the Enoch Pratt Library, Maravene Loeschke, the new head of Towson University, our mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Senator Barbara Mikulski. I would say it’s unusual for a city to have so much female leadership, but I think we’re just ahead of the curve.

What do you want people to take away from the “new BMA”?

There are two things. The first is just to enjoy the experience in the galleries, the installation as well as the art itself. People are going to be surprised! Also, to appreciate how much of what has been done is about the infrastructure, the solid underpinnings of the building. It is really quite an achievement.


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