Melding Museum & City

curated by James Archer Abbott

July-September 2017, Evergreen Museum & Library

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As museums mature, they sometimes become distant from the cities they are situated within.  In 2017 I was chosen as the artist in residence at the Evergreen Museum & Library in Baltimore, and after spending some time there one thing stood out…. Evergreen’s geographic and cultural isolation from Baltimore.  I chose to challenge the institution by facilitating an exchange of materials and imagery between museum and city.      

The museum was built in 1850 and was originally the home of T. Harrison Garrett (founder of Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and diplomat) and his family.  The theater was built in the early 20th century because Alice Warder Garett (wife of John Work Garret) expressed an interest in acting.  She loved the Ballet Russe and in 1920 invited costume designer Leon Bakst to design an original series of stencils for the walls and ceilings of her theater.

To facilitate the exchange between museum and city, I used this historic wall motif by creating a series of enlarged stencils that free the rooster pattern from the museum’s interior and allow it to interact with the surrounding landscape of Baltimore.  Using athletic field painting techniques, I applied the stencil to the landscape surrounding the museum to enable the previously cloistered pattern a chance to encounter the physical elements of the city.  I collected abandoned dirt bikes, 4-wheelers and scooters during the residency and displayed them in the museum and on the grounds to reciprocate the release of the pattern.  The dirt bikes reference Baltimore’s fascination with motor sports.  Riders view dirt biking as the ultimate expression of freedom from economically constraining environments found in many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods.  Bikes are traded, bought, stolen, sold for parts, scrapped and passed around from person to person.  They are truly a commodity here in Baltimore.  I had strangers offering me money for them when I was transporting them to the museum.  Some viewers regarded the bikes as “threatening” and saw their presence in the museum as symbolic to the reckless “hooligans” in the city.  They are spread throughout the museum in an unpredictable fashion to address these perceptions that the bikes and riders are some sort of invasive species. 

Melding Museum & City addresses themes of accessibility and exclusion through the use of institutional archives and potent materials sourced directly from the city.  The museum’s surface is turned inside out and lets outside in.  Rather than excluding important aspects of society, this binary exchange uses the museum’s platform to question its role in the world as cultural custodian through the phenomenon of material meaning.