Unless you’re talking about the Ravens, Baltimore always seems to be in the news for the wrong reasons. The city certainly has its challenges, but as someone who came to Washington for college and gradually moved closer to Baltimore over the years, straddling allegiance between the two cities for far too long, I find myself increasingly championing and cherishing Baltimore. If Washington is the serious suitor, Baltimore is the fun one. You know what you’re going to get with Washington. With Baltimore, you’re not quite sure. Washington will impress you, but Baltimore can surprise you. This is particularly true with the art scene in Baltimore.
Everybody knows that Washington has great museums, which is why they always tend to be crowded. I have braved the crowds in order to see the portraits of Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald and Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley on display at National Portrait Gallery. And, after the experience of waiting my turn, quickly taking my picture, then stepping out of the way, I went back a few months later and did it again. But as I took the time to study the portraits, I couldn’t help but to selfishly wish I had more space around me. That I didn’t have to worry about being in somebody’s way, or to find another spot after somebody stepped into my way. It’s hard not to want to linger at the Obama portraits, yet it’s hard to do so.
Of course, I would encourage everybody to visit the Portrait Gallery, and to visit all of the museums in DC for that matter. They’re excellent. But, sometimes, you just want to get lost in the art. You want to spend the better part of a day at a museum. You want to study every piece in an exhibit and consider why each piece was selected and how the pieces all fit together. You want to read every description and learn something new, then step back and discover something for yourself as you observe the work. And I regularly find myself in disbelief that I can have these experiences in Baltimore at both the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum, and for free.
A few months ago, I went to the Baltimore Museum of Art to see an exhibit titled Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s. The exhibit featured primarily Spanish artists. I was excited to see it because I studied in Madrid while in college, and I can honestly say that it was during my semester in Spain that I truly understood art for the first time. Learning about the historical context in which the artists were creating their work made the abstract comprehensible. I considered inviting a friend to join me at the exhibit, but because Spain held such special memories for me, I ultimately decided to go on my own. I wanted to be able to give the exhibit my full attention.
As I explored the exhibit, I was aware of other people around me, yet I never felt interrupted. I admit, there were moments when I, a confessed people-watcher, found myself wondering what brought a certain person or group of people to the exhibit. But, for the most part, I spent a few hours blissfully drifting from room to room without needing to pivot or detour. When I completed the exhibit, I continued to wander into other exhibits, as each turn around a corner brought a new surprise. It wasn’t my first time at the museum, and yet I still found myself wonderfully lost, returning to the center courtyard multiple times before finally picking the correct path towards the exit.
More recently, I went to the Walters Art Museum to see an exhibit titled Designing the New: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style. I had been introduced to Mackintosh and his work while in Glasgow, so once again my fond memories of that experience drew me to this exhibit. Once again, I relished being able to take my time. Once again, the crowd size was just enough to keep me entertained while allowing me the luxury of observing a piece of art uninterrupted. An added bonus here was that my stop at the museum café enhanced my experience, its serene ambiance allowing me to enjoy my food while reflecting upon the exhibit without distraction.
I know I may sound like a bit of a curmudgeon or snob writing this, but I can’t help but to think back upon exhibits I eagerly anticipated, only to find them impossible to enjoy due to crowd size. So, I find my visits to Baltimore museums refreshing. And while you could easily spend a day at the art museums, it would be a shame not to include a visit to the Peabody Library while in town. It’s across from the Walters Art Museum, in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. In fact, I would also recommend a guided tour of Mount Vernon, where you can walk in the footsteps of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Wallis Simpson, who all lived in the neighborhood at one point. But with its limited hours, the Peabody must be the first stop. Like the Library of Congress, it is a place to simply stand in awe at the grandeur. However, if you’re lucky, at the Peabody you may also be able to hear music coming from the rehearsals at the Peabody Conservatory, located in the same building.
My one other indulgence in Baltimore is watching old movies from the Revival Series at The Charles Theater. The experience always reminds me of the film class I took my freshman year of college, when sitting in a small auditorium watching classic foreign films always felt more like playing hooky than earning credit. I’m grateful that The Charles shows these films, providing me the opportunity to see old movies which I had never heard of before or thought I’d never get a chance to see again. My favorite winter ritual has become goinging to The Charles on a chilly Saturday morning, catching the 11:30 a.m. showing of the Revival Series, then popping into the tiny crêpe store next-door and sitting at a bar stool looking out the window as I contemplate the movie while enjoying a warm crêpe. I’ve seen so many Ingmar Bergman films by now thanks to the Revival Series that I can almost understand them by the time I finish eating. Almost.
There are a lot of words that can spring to mind when you mention Baltimore, from football to Fort McHenry, the Inner Harbor to John Waters, crab cakes to the Preakness. But the word I would most like to contribute is…art. While I’ve mentioned my favorite places here, there are many other great venues for visual and performance art, plus awesome murals throughout the city. Whether in a museum, at a theater, on the stage, along a building, or even the building itself, Baltimore has an abundance of art. And room for viewing it.