Since the day Doreen Bolger announced her retirement from the Baltimore Museum of Art last month, Baltimore's creative community has both celebrated her legacy and mourned the loss of an innovative and respected leader. She was a Medal of Honor recipient at the Maryland Institute College of Art this spring, and the Greater Baltimore Committee recently presented Bolger with its regional visionary award. Our conversation took place shortly after rioting ripped apart the city following the death of Freddie Gray, and Baltimoreans were still processing what had occurred. We talked with Bolger about what has changed, and what hasn't, in Baltimore during her 17-year tenure, her legacy, and what's next.
What's it like for you looking back at your career here?
We instituted free admission to the collection, and [re-installed] it in really creative and meaningful ways for people. That goes all the way back to early days, like 2001 with the Cone Collection, 2003 with the Jacobs Wing, and now this major renovation that's gone on for the past four years with the Contemporary, African, and Asian wings. The whole collection is now out for people to learn from and enjoy. The building is more of a place where people can come and enjoy, in a safe place, conversation about all kinds of topics, personal and community-wide. I think the museum is more welcoming than before. With the re-done lobby, we've thrown open the historic entrance, just one thing after another that has placed the museum even closer to the community. I think we've done amazing exhibitions . . . from the first show we did in partnership with [The Maryland Institute College of Art] on Joyce Scott, one of the most important African-American artists, one of the most important artists, period, in our city. When I look at that history, it's very gratifying. And it feels like a really high moment to be stepping down.
How did you know it was time?
I don't know how you ever know it's time. But I think you say to yourself, "I've accomplished everything that I set out to accomplish, and there are a lot of other things in life that I'd like to do in the world." And then you just have to get yourself to move on. It's sort of like accepting that your children have grown up. It's very difficult to do, but you have to do it. It's best.
What are those other things that you want to do?
Well, I have lots of thoughts. I have shows that I thought about curating after I was finished being a curator. The curatorial part of my career lasted a really long time—14 years at [The Metropolitan Museum of Art] in New York, and five-and-a-half years at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, TX. So my career has been evenly balanced between curatorial work and administration. I think of a couple of shows I had ideas for years ago, and even files, if you can imagine, old-fashioned files with pencil notes. That's how long ago it was, Xeroxes, oh my gosh, no Wikipedia . . . One is a show on the connection between decoration and abstraction—19th century textiles, wallpaper, and murals and how that was related to abstraction in the 20th century, that design, in a sense, set the stage for that. [Also], artists became very interested in chalkboards at a certain point and in mark making in their paintings that looks like a chalk inscription but is actually painted. I've thought, particularly in recent times, it would be interesting to juxtapose the wonderful chalkboard that's even today still used in a classroom with what we think about with new technologies . . . Those are kind of far out ideas . . . I'd like to stay engaged with a lot of the organizations that I've been active with here in Baltimore. That includes Station North Arts and Entertainment District, the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, Maryland Citizens for the Arts, the D center. I'd like to do more with artists. I'd like to do more writing about living artists. Even though most of my work as a curator is about dead artists, I'm actually very interested in living ones, too. That feels like a lot to take on and think about.
It sounds like you've got it all planned out, almost.
(Laughs) I don't know that it's all planned out. I've also thought about writing a couple of novels, which would be fun. But I don't know if I can do that. I've written a lot of history stuff . . . sometimes the truth is more interesting than fiction, and that gets you to thinking, "Wow, what if it was fiction?" and play out the possibilities. There's lots to think about.
Sounds like you are excited about this new chapter.
I think in life you have to always be ready for the next chapter. I always look ahead, rich as my background has been and wonderful as the opportunities I've had and all the institutions I've been involved with. It's great to think that there's always a new adventure.
Looking back at your time here, how has Baltimore changed?
That's a hard question to answer today, because in some ways it's changed and in some ways things have not changed. What I think is unchanging about the museum is its potential to be a forum for people from all different backgrounds to come together and talk. I think the things we still need to think about as a city could be discussed in our galleries, in front of works of art in very meaningful ways. I think Baltimore has become a stronger city over time. I hope across the nation people remember that, and whatever setbacks we're having with this current situation, that people recognize this is a city of neighborhoods, community of people helping each other, of a lot of good feeling, and a lot of kindness and caring.
What role do you see art playing as we move forward as a city and come to a place of healing?
Artists capture so many feelings, so many social situations, so much controversy, and so much potential for resolution. I like to think about our Antioch mosaics upstairs, which are thousands of years old. However, it shows that the same things keep coming up in art, interpreted in different ways . . . a lot of them show animals, birds and lions and tigers and oxen. And the theme of the mosaics is philia, which means the bringing together of different forces in unity and friendship . . . You see these incredible, ancient mosaics, and on one side there's a lion and on one side there's an oxen and they're learning to live together. And whatever their life habits and powers and strengths, they find peace together, and I think that's what we need here in this city. [We need] everyone to find a way to live together in peace, and for us to help each other, and to recognize that they're needs in this city that have to be met.
It's almost comforting to know that past generations have gone through some of the same things we've been through. They wouldn't have created the art if they weren't looking for unity.
And really desiring it. I think it tells us that people have struggled with problems like this forever and constantly sought solutions. I think now we probably know more about what's happening because we communicate more instantly than we did before. But maybe that will help us come more quickly to solutions than we have in the past. And it would be wonderful if the museum could be a place where people come to think about those questions and everyone could be welcome.
How has the museum changed during your tenure?
Oh gosh . . . there's so many points of change. The first thing, and it's a sort of a professional thing, is I think we've made the collection the focus of all that we do. The great legacy we have, that the community has given us, we're focusing on sharing that back . . .We're still doing fabulous temporary exhibitions, but we're really focusing on the things that will be here all the time for people when they visit, and refreshing it and changing it and making it new all the time . . . I would also say we've worked really hard to connect to the community here, to Baltimore, Maryland, the citizens, the artists, the other institutions and worked a lot in partnership with people. Not that that wasn't done before, but I think as we become a more connected society we realize how central that is to everything we do.
Was there any change that surprised you?
I always knew working in museums that you had to be diligent about your facility and constantly renew it. But I feel as though my tenure here has been moving from roof to roof, fire suppression to structural support to a hundred different things that had to get done. We've been very diligent about it. There's a lot of improvements that go on around the museum that people don't see or don't think about, but that are so important. I guess I was surprised at how that continues to roll forward. I can't say, "Wow, we're done." We still have more to do. (laughs) . . . When I got a ph. D in art history I don't think that really I needed to be an engineer and worry about the building automation system. But that's the great thing about working in museums is there's always something new to learn and that's what's kept me looking ahead.
How active will you be in choosing your successor?
Oh, not at all. That's not a process I intend to haunt. I'm glad to tell people how wonderful the museum is but that will essentially be what my role is.
Is there anything you'd like to see from the person who takes after you?
I think whoever has this job next will be looking forward to and finding new things. Just like I've said about other people, "What were they thinking?" I'm sure someone will say that about me, too. It's just the way things are.
How has Baltimore's art scene changed during your time at the BMA?
There's been a bit of a speed up in the number of artists, the impact that artists are having on the community, the importance of those artists, the innovative qualities of those artists. A lot of that leadership can be attributed to MICA and its central role in the community, but there's also art programs at Towson and Goucher and other places. I think the sort-of trans-disciplinary nature of our artist community, the way so many artists work not just in visual arts, but in theater or they write poetry or they perform music. Thinking back to the time when Dan Deacon and Wham City came to Baltimore, which now must be a decade or so ago, there's been a real growth of innovation. I think people will write about this time and say it was amazing, the amount of creativity that was existent in the city. And I think they'll also say the museum had a role in connecting to that ecosystem of artists, educators, performers, writers, and musicians. A lot of shows we've done in the Contemporary wing have recognized artists in our own community, acquired their work, added it to our collection. We'll have a core of what this was about here at the museum forever.
You're intending to stay in Baltimore, right?
I am. I have changed my e-mail to [include Baltimore.] I think that shows this is where I intend to be.
You're known for being a presence at local art shows, sometimes attending multiple openings a night. Is that something you intend to continue?
Oh sure, I'd love to keep doing that. I just hope they're still interested in me when I'm not the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art . . . I must say it's great fun to see what new things are being made every day.