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Five Years Into Its Baltimore Gallery Experiment, Funding Problems Force Annapolis Art Organization To Close Shop And Regroup

LAST ACTION FIGURE: The MFA City Gallery's final show includes Jenna Bishel's "Untitled."

By J. Bowers | Posted 3/8/2006

Go Figure

At the Maryland Federation of Art City Gallery through March 24.

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes—even a 38-year-old nonprofit organization. When the Maryland Federation of Art’s board of directors decided to supplement the organization’s strong presence at Annapolis’ Circle Gallery with a second space on North Charles Street in 2001, it sounded like an easy way for the federation to establish a presence in Maryland’s biggest metropolis, increase its visibility, and expand its mission to provide professional exhibition opportunities for emerging artists.

But over the past five years, the City Gallery has struggled to build relationships with the Baltimore business and art communities, much like the nascent artists that the Maryland Federation of Art strives to represent. After its current show, Go Figure, a national juried exhibit of figural paintings, sculptures, and photographs, the City Gallery will close its doors for good, canceling the rest of its scheduled 2006 season and sending the federation back to Annapolis, its proverbial tail between its legs.

The closing feels sudden, especially coupled with recent turnover on the Maryland Federation of Art’s board of directors—longtime executive director Pamela Wilson stepped down, making way for local boy-via-California Brian Bohn; former board president Joe Dickey was invited to reassume his post last November—but everyone involved insists that these changes indicate a carefully planned effort to regroup, not retreat.

“Moving to Baltimore and opening a second gallery was a really bold initiative for us, and it was very challenging financially,” says Wilson, who held the position of executive director when the City Gallery opened. “By the end of last fall, it really was a heartrending decision, but a responsible one, to close the City Gallery, regroup at our Annapolis location, and start looking for a greater level of financial support to sustain our presence in Baltimore.”

Several factors contributed to the gallery’s failure. First, the right infrastructure was never in place. The federation’s board of directors has always been predominantly composed of artists, not businesspeople, and though the City Gallery enjoyed some success partnering with Maryland Institute College of Art and the Johns Hopkins University for its annual Beyond the Looking Glass art exhibit by city youth, its connection to the Baltimore community simply wasn’t strong enough to sustain financial support. As a primarily board-driven organization with only two full-time employees, the Maryland Federation of Art lacks both a dedicated development staff and the resources to hire one. Baltimore member turnover was high, as student artists from MICA, Towson University, and other local schools tended to join the federation, exhibit their work at the City Gallery, and then leave town.

“I think we sort of put the cart before the horse,” admits Dickey, who also works as a professor in JHU’s engineering school. “Looking back on it from today’s vantage point, we probably needed to build a support base in Baltimore first, then ease into having a gallery.”

The decision to abandon the City Gallery was an emotional one for the Maryland Federation of Art’s board of directors. Some members initially disagreed with the closing, viewing it as a step backward for the entire organization.

“Others thought we should have closed a long time ago,” Dickey says. “However, the board now is very solid, very hard-working, and in step with itself. Everyone’s on the same side of the canoe here, and our goals are clear. We’re not sure exactly what our presence in Baltimore is going to be, but we’ve been around for 40 years, we’re financially solvent. We just need to rethink how we do things.”

No matter what the federation’s board ultimately decides to do, the organization’s key mission of assisting emerging artists will remain the same. But that mission is one of the factors that limited the City Gallery’s financial sustainability. Work by emerging artists, who by definition don’t have solid collector base, doesn’t sell well as a rule, and emerging artists typically don’t have extra cash to contribute to the galleries that exhibit them. Plus, the City Gallery tended to host shows that were unpredictable in terms of overall quality.

Fittingly, the work in the space’s farewell sally, Go Figure, juried by the National Gallery’s Wilford W. Scott, ranges wildly in terms of skill level. For every sublimely subversive Jeriah Hildwine painting (“The Presentation of Eve to Adam”) or sinuous black walnut Brian Flynn sculpture (“Figure 2005”), there are at least three other pieces that feel garish or unremarkable by comparison. The bottom line is sad but true: The City Gallery was never a must-see destination for local art enthusiasts.

“It has a lot to do, I think, with being able to integrate with the arts community around here, and I don’t think we ever managed to do that,” says gallery director Joel Persels, who has been with the City Gallery since its inception, and will leave the federation when the space closes. “There were no significant sales, and there’s not much foot traffic around here. Also, because we support emerging artists, we have no permanent collection and no returning artists. Membership did spike over the last few years, but it just wasn’t enough.”

Despite this setback, both Dickey and Wilson remain confident that Baltimore hasn’t seen the last of the federation. A search for alternative venues to host the City Gallery’s canceled show roster is currently underway, with particular plans to make sure that this year’s Beyond the Looking Glass exhibit happens, and a long-term view toward finding a new space in Baltimore. The Maryland Federation of Art board is also looking for input from local artists who have ideas about how the organization could better serve its needs.

“You have to take a step back sometimes to move forward,” Wilson says. “Closing the City Gallery is a responsible fiscal decision for the MFA right now. But we’ll be back.”

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