The Contemporary, Baltimore’s nationally recognized nomadic art museum, suspends operations

The Contemporary’s last exhibition “The Ground,” featuring work by Michael Jones McKean. Photo courtesy Facebook.

The city’s non-collecting, nomadic art museum is once again suspending operations four years after its relaunch. The board of The Contemporary released a statement Monday night emphasizing that the institution is not closing and that the board will stay on “to review our strategic goals and determine the most optimal, sustainable way to deliver on our shared vision.”

The staff of The Contemporary, however, served their last days on Dec. 8. At that point, the only two remaining employees were Artistic Director Ginevra Shay and Education Director Lee Heinemann—both artists independent of The Contemporary—following the departures of Executive Director Deana Haggag in March of this year and Deputy-turned-Interim Director Lu Zhang later in the year. Shay and Heinemann were unable to provide comment to the Beat.

“Baltimore should be very proud of the outstanding work The Contemporary’s dedicated staff members Deana Haggag, Ginevra Shay, Lu Zhang and Lee Heinemann accomplished since the museum’s relaunch over four years ago,” The Contemporary’s founder, George Ciscle, wrote to the Beat. “During that time they, along with incredible interns and legions of volunteers, envisioned and implemented artistic projects and collaborative programming whose impact will be felt for many years to come.”

The Contemporary is no stranger to drastic shifts. Founded in Baltimore in 1989 by Ciscle, the institution hosted its first exhibition in 1990 highlighting work by established and emerging artists impacted by AIDS at the old Famous Ballroom on Charles Street in response to the AIDS crisis and the cultural strike “A Day Without Art.” The Contemporary continued to put on ambitious exhibitions by artists including Alison Saar and Fred Wilson in partnered museums and various borrowed spaces around the city until 1999, when The Contemporary obtained a permanent space in Mount Vernon near the Walters Art Museum. During that time, The Contemporary worked with more internationally-recognized names like Chris Burden, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Louise Bourgeois, among others. The Contemporary moved out of its building in 2011, suspended operations in 2012, and relaunched in 2013, bringing in Haggag, then a recent graduate of MICA’s Curatorial Practice MFA program, as director and returning to its original model as a roaming museum.

“From its inception, The Contemporary has been an ever-evolving institution that has gone through many different transformations and iterations,” says Jessica Lanzillotti, chair of The Contemporary board and general manager at Everyman Theatre, in Monday’s press release announcing the suspension of operations.

Following its relaunch, the museum put on its first exhibition in nearly three years in 2015 with Victoria Fu’s luminous audio-visual exhibition “Bubble Over Green” in the vacant, brutalist KAGRO building on North Avenue. Later that same year, The Contemporary posted up outside Lexington Market and other locations by way of Miriam Simun’s mobile food truck performance “GhostFood,” a collaboration with the Program in Museums and Society at Johns Hopkins University. In 2016, the museum invited Abigail DeVille to research and transform the former Peale Museum downtown into an immersive, site-specific installation titled “Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See The Stars”; then earlier this year, they had Michael Jones McKean construct “The Ground,” a massive, multi-level structure dropped into the middle of the old Hutzler Brothers Palace Building on Howard Street. The exhibitions would often include related programming and performances from local artists.

In between these exhibitions, The Contemporary offered a string of free artist talks and speaker series co-hosted with local galleries, most taking place at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Speakers included among others legendary art activists the Guerrilla Girls, celebrity art critic Jerry Saltz, photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier, musician and professional partier Andrew W.K., interdisciplinary artist Coco Fusco, and sculptor-performance artist Nick Cave. Most recently, The Contemporary hosted a talk in October with artist Stephanie Dinkins and Bina48, an advanced artificial intelligence being.

Since its relaunch, The Contemporary has also put out four editions of its robust, intern-produced publication “Scroll”; brought visiting established artists to local artists’ studios; hosted a large artist retreat at the Pearlstone Center; adopted the youth-led production company Get Your Life! founded by Education Director Lee Heinemann; and established the Grit Fund in 2015, annually providing several juried grants in amounts between $1,000 to $6,000 to local projects, among them LabBodies’ Performance Art Review, dance party Blush + Brews, print magazine True Laurels, and artist collective Balti Gurls. (Look to BmoreArt’s Cara Ober here for reflections on The Contemporary’s accomplishments since its reopening.)

Despite the scale and quantity of The Contemporary’s projects, the institution struggled to keep going.

“Funding is just not available, or funding is often relegated to institutions that are so much larger than The Contemporary,” former Artistic Director Deana Haggag told the Beat following the board’s announcement. “How does something like that sustain itself in a market like Baltimore? We never figured it out clearly. I guess from the onset The Contemporary looked incredibly successful. . . . I’m curious now as a nonprofit administrator how clear we can be about the challenges these places face so it doesn’t feel like a shock every time when it’s hitting ground zero. But we started at zero every year and at a certain point it just exhausted all of us, clearly.”

Haggag announced in January that she would be leaving to take up the post of president of the USA—that is, United States Artists, a Chicago-based organization that offers $50,000 fellowships to artists (past recipients have included Claudia Rankine, Barry Jenkins, Miranda July, and Baltimore’s own Liz Lerman and Joyce J. Scott, among nearly 500 others).

“Having almost a year away from The Contemporary has made me have the realization that doing that work with the group of people that was hired there at the time and with the board that was there, in particular with [former Board President] Terry Squyres, is the best thing I think I will ever do with my life,” Haggag said. “I don’t know if that kind of energy is replicable.”

At the time of her announcement, the board of The Contemporary said it would embark on a national search for Haggag’s replacement. According to Monday’s press release, however, the search was unsuccessful.

“This past spring and summer, The Contemporary convened a search committee comprised of Board members, staff and community influencers to conduct a national search for an executive director,” the release reads. “The search did not yield a candidate to lead The Contemporary into the future.”

The board says it will take the next the next several months to determine a course of action. With the staff that fueled the first relaunch gone—and federal and state support for the arts perpetually but especially now under threat—the possibility of another resurrection seems uncertain, perhaps even unlikely. As Haggag notes, few were optimistic about the institution’s future when it first suspended operations and took time to regroup. But given that The Contemporary has done it before and maintained an enthusiastic following through its series of transformations, another iteration of The Contemporary may well be in Baltimore’s future.

“In the meantime, I understand that there’s a loss, but I think ultimately it’s the right call to take time to figure it out,” Haggag said. “And I think that Baltimore should try to advocate for a kind of protection for the institutions that they think really represent them.”

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