An Artful Life: An Interview with Doreen Bolger by Cara Ober

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BMA Director Doreen Bolger charms Charm City artists with thoughtful weekly blog coverage.

When Doreen Bolger started receiving thank-you notes and emails from the mothers of Baltimore artists, she realized she was onto something. “I have come to realize that recognition for a living artist is very dear,” she explains. “There’s more to write about here in Baltimore than I could ever cover and there’s so much to be positive about.”

Bolger has been the Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art since 1998 and, more and more, has come to personify the face and the heart of the museum to the local arts community. Her official duties include managing all financial decisions, programming, acquisitions, and the collection of approximately 90,000 objects. She also attends all museum events, fundraisers, and programs. But that is just the beginning.

Not content to work within the boundaries of the museum, Bolger has made it a priority to reach out to Baltimore’s contemporary arts community. In her spare time, she serves on the boards of numerous local organizations like Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, Maryland Citizens for the Arts, and the Charles Street Development Corporation. And, in the precious few hours she has left, she blogs.

Lots of museum directors blog and tweet about the inner workings of their institutions, and these publications are an effective arm of their public relations duties. However, Bolger’s An Artful Life blog, part of the Baltimore Sun’s Charm City Current, is different. “When the Baltimore Sun contacted the museum and asked me to write about art, I said I’d do it, but I didn’t want to blog about the BMA” she explains. “I was interested in what was going on the in the broader communities.”

There  wasn’t enough writing being done about artists exhibiting in the community, and there has been no end of material to cover.” With a watchful eye pointed at Baltimore’s burgeoning DIY arts community, Bolger has been blogging on the site since November, 2009. She usually manages to do one post per week and focuses her reviews on local exhibits and emerging artists.

Bolger started her career as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and earned a PhD at the City University of New York. She is regarded as an expert on 19th Century Painting and cites Thomas Eakins and Thomas Cole as examples of her favorite artists. After serving as a curator at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, TX, Bolger moved to Providence, RI, to run the art museum at the Rhode Island School of Design. This was her first encounter with a local arts community and living artists.

“Living in Providence was very interesting for lots of reasons. I lived on College Hill, surrounded by Brown and RISD, and artists were everywhere,” recalls Bolger. “Very much like at MICA, you’re walking down the street and you realize you are surrounded by art. Just walking to a meeting or standing in the street was so much fun and so surprising.”

At RISD, one of her duties was to reestablish a relationship with the local arts community. “That is how I got to know contemporary artists,” she explains. “Before that, I had only dealt with artists who were deceased. This was an interesting change.”

After RISD, Bolger became the director of the BMA. She moved to Baltimore in 1998 and bought a house within a few blocks of the museum. “I had lived in Washington before, and I had been a fan of Baltimore for many years. I really wanted to be in a municipal musuem in a developing city and the BMA has an amazing collection. In Baltimore there seemed to be a lot of important things to do and so many social and economic challenges I wanted to approach.”

In Baltimore, Bolger took a number of steps to democratize the BMA, including instituting a free admission price and planning exhibits around local art organizations, like Art on Purpose and Artscape’s Sondheim Prize. Bolger’s Artful Life Blog is an extension of her mission to make the BMA more inclusive of local artists, and is a significant way to recognize excellence in the Baltimore art community.

Local artist Mark Eisendrath’s exhibit at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Meyers Maritime Park’s Community Arts Building. was featured in An Artful Life on December 13, 2010. “Doreen spent the majority of the hour she was at my show with her nose just inches from one of my pieces, taking it in from every perspective,” says Eisendrath. “It struck me this time, as it has in the past, that Ms. Bolger is someone for whom art is something consumed rather than percieved. She eats, breathes, lives art.”

“The ratio of arts writers to artists in Baltimore is incredibly uneven, so that makes the few that critically write about artists and their process so important,” echoes artist René Treviño, reviewed in An Artful Life  on October 29. “When the Director of a major museum takes time out of her insane schedule to not only see your work but also thoughtfully write about it, it’s an incredible honor. On a professional level, it also really helps the artist – I appreciate being able to include her words in my press kit and it is an impressive line on my resume. More than anything though, I love that Doreen Bolger is such an ardent lover of the arts and genuinely wants to be a part of the conversation in the city where she lives and works.”

“There’s always more to write about than I possibly could ever cover,” Bolger admits. “There’s no shortage of material. My goal is to promote the underground art scene of Baltimore to readers who don’t have a clue what goes on here. It seems like the blog is taking on a life of its own.”

Bolger is correct. Recognized as the Best Art Blog of 2010 by the Baltimore City Paper, her art reviews are being touted, forwarded, and shared by an appreciative audience. Now a regular fixture at performances, DIY spaces, and local exhibits, Baltimore’s artists are honored by Bolger’s attention and devoted weekly coverage.

“Baltimore has such good artists that are making such an impact,” Bolger enthuses. “They make it a better city. Baltimore is a great city for artists to live in.”

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