Mickalene Thomas turns BMA’s East Lobby into ‘Baltimore’s living room’

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One of the living room installations at the Baltimore Museum of Art by artist Mickalene Thomas. Photo by Ed Gunts.

City leaders have referred to the Inner Harbor as Baltimore’s “playground.” Henry James likened Mount Vernon Place to the city’s “parlor.”

And for the next 18 months, the East Lobby of the Baltimore Museum of Art will be the city’s “living room,” following the installation of an exhibition by internationally recognized artist Mickalene Thomas.

The front of the museum’s East Wing has been turned into a series of oversized rowhouse facades, one in simulated brick, one in siding and one in FormStone.

It leads to a revamped lobby that has images of residential settings from the 1970s and 1980s, along with a wall containing various house plants.

Up the main stairs to the Thalheimer Galleries is a mural of a giant sofa and hanging lamp. Visible from the top of the stairs is the tableau of a living room, with a regular-sized couch and matching chairs.

Out on the Murray J. Rymland Terrace, which isn’t usually open to the public, is a temporary structure called the Terrace Gallery that contains two more living room-like spaces, a den with a jumbo TV and a room that recalls a basement bar. That leads to a tiny outdoor green space, complete with Astroturf.

These residential spaces provide a backdrop for art by Thomas and more than 30 other artists, in an installation that marks one of the first times the museum’s East Lobby has been used to display artwork.

The exhibit, entitled “Mickalene Thomas: A Moment’s Pleasure,” is the first major presentation of the museum’s 2020 Vision Initiative highlighting female-identifying artists.

It’s also the first exhibition of the Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker Biennial Commission, which was established last year to give contemporary artists a platform in the museum to carry out new projects and engage with patrons in one of its most accessible areas.

According to museum director Christopher Bedford, the Meyerhoff-Becker Commission was created in large part to fulfill the mission of “making the museum experience more welcoming to a broader range of visitors through exceptional art.”

The facade of the museum’s East Wing now resembles Baltimore rowhouses. Photo by Ed Gunts.

During a preview of the exhibit yesterday, Bedford said the lobby space will change every two years from now on to contain a new exhibit.

“Not only will you have the opportunity for 18 months to enjoy Mickalene Thomas’ groundbreaking installation,” he said, “every two years, for quite literally forever, that lobby will be home to an ambitious installation aiming to engage the citizens of Baltimore through art.”

Bedford said early documents show that when architect John Russell Pope designed the museum, he meant for it to be “a meeting place, a Democratic place for all the citizens of Baltimore, irrespective of your knowledge of art [or] engagement of culture…the broadest demographic conceivable.”

Since then, Bedford admitted, “the BMA has perhaps lost track of that founding principle, to be here for all at all times.”

The idea behind engaging Thomas was to restore some of those ideas in a modern context.

“So John Russell Pope said he wanted it to be Baltimore’s porch,” he said. “I think what Mickalene Thomas has conceived is Baltimore’s living room.”

Bedford also said it was both notable and generous that Thomas used the commission to share the spotlight with other artists.

“Many other artists would have taken a commission like this and it would have been all about them, all the time. In the case of Mickalene Thomas, it is not all about her, all the time. In fact, there is an ego-less dimension to this installation that I think is timely, laudable and quite uniquely her.”

Thomas, who is 48 and from Camden, New Jersey, said that other artists might have used the commission to create a single monumental sculpture in the lobby or a two-dimensional work of art, but she wanted to do something that was “more transformative” and would bring the community to the museum.

“How does one do that in this space?” she asked. “It’s about really changing the façade. It’s about changing the interior. But also allowing this lobby to be open in a way, where all of my touches are along the side, on the periphery.”

She went on to say: “The organization and artists that we’re working with, this gives them opportunity to use this as their platform, to use this space, this lobby, as their space. To take ownership of that, whether it be a dance performance that could be here, whether it could be musicians…or a place of conversation. This becomes their landscape, their museum, that they can transform and use as their living room.”

Thomas said she intended the exhibit to evoke a residential setting from the 1970s and 1980s that reflects a “black aesthetic.”

“Black aesthetic is black art,” she said. “Black living. Black love. Black materials. Black poetry. Black literature. Black music.”

Why the ’70s and ’80s (other than the building dates from 1982)?

“I think of the ’70s and ’80s as a prevalent movement for black people,” she said. “It is about black aesthetic. Historically, when you think of black women owning their beauty, their hairstyles, when you think of styles and music, everything happened in the late ’60s, ’70s. Civil rights. Black Panthers.”

As part of the exhibit, Thomas curated a presentation of paintings, prints and drawings by artists with ties to Baltimore, in the temporary Terrace Gallery. According to Bedford, the exhibit features the work of 16 artists now and will change at some point to show works by 16 other artists.

Featured artists include Derrick Adams, Zoe Charlton, Theresa Chromati, Dominiqua Eldridge, Devin Morris, Clifford Owens and D’Metrius John Rice. Also showing in a loop are video works by Abdu Ali and Karryl Eugene; Erick Antonio Benitez, Nicoletta Darita de la Brown, Kotic Couture, Markele Cullins, Emily Eaglin, Hunter Hooligan and TT the Artist. Some, such as Adams, are well known, while others, such as Morris, have never had their work shown in a major museum.

The show, which is free, opens to the public on Sunday and will remain on view until May 2, 2021.

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