In 1996, George Ciscle retired for the first time.
Founder of Baltimore’s Contemporary Museum — an “un-museum” that turned existing conventions for exhibiting art on their head — the longtime curator decided it was time to step down from his role as the organization’s director. Unsure of what his next steps would be, Ciscle planned on taking a rest while he contemplated his future.
But when his pending retirement was announced in a local newspaper, then-MICA President Fred Lazarus was prompted to pick up the phone and give Ciscle a call. “He wanted to know whether I had made my decision on my next step, and if I hadn’t, he wanted to be the first person I spoke to,” Ciscle recalled.
The result of that call? A short-lived rest for Ciscle and a 20-year relationship that benefited not only MICA and its students, but helped establish the unique, DIY culture that defines Baltimore’s arts scene today. And while that affiliation will never end, it will be changing this year when Ciscle retires for the second time, stepping down from his current role as director of MICA’s MFA in Curatorial Practice program.
Ciscle started his career at MICA as a guest curator, where he worked with 12 students on an Elizabeth Talford Scott exhibition. The lessons he taught during that first collaboration — about the importance of looking at the relationship between an artist’s work and the larger community, and what it meant to reach out to audiences outside of the arts world — had long been hallmarks of his work. The Contemporary, for example, was a museum without walls largely focused on bringing artwork to people’s everyday lives. Ciscle wanted to instill this mindset in his students at MICA.
The role of guest curator evolved into a curator-in-residence position, which allowed Ciscle to formalize his teachings with the creation of the Exhibition Development Seminar (EDS). That yearlong course offering — which remains popular today — allows students to learn the ins and outs of putting on an exhibition while they explore imaginative ways to connect the exhibition’s work with the world outside of MICA.
The exhibitions Ciscle produced through EDS since 1997 include Joyce J. Scott: Kickin’ It with the Old Masters, which took place at The Baltimore Museum of Art and traveled to 10 museums nationwide; The Marlborough Art Project, which took place at the landmark Marlborough Apartments in MICA’s Bolton Hill neighborhood; and At Freedom’s Door: Challenging Slavery in Maryland, which was held at the Maryland Historical Society and Reginald F. Lewis Museum.
Over the years, Ciscle noticed that many MICA students participating in EDS began to consider career options other than that of exhibiting artist or designer. Some started to imagine what it would be like to be a curator or educator working in a museum or the founder of a community-based arts center. The idea of creating a program to help those students achieve such goals took hold.
Largely in answer to student response to EDS, the College launched the MFA in Curatorial Practice program, the first MFA of its kind in the country. While many other programs focus on exhibition, MICA’s curatorial practice program asks the question ‘what does it mean to have an audience?’ “This makes us unique,” Ciscle said, pointing out that students have to be creative in order to develop accessible exhibitions in venues that are both traditional and nontraditional. As he asked, “why would your grandmother want to come to this exhibition?” That simple question inspires his students to find innovative ways to spread the reach of art throughout the community.
Watching those students grow their creativity, critical thinking skills, and confidence has been the most gratifying aspect of Ciscle’s time at MICA. “My joy is being able to be an audience member to those who have a vision — the curators and the artists and designers,” he said.
Though he is stepping down as director of the MFA program, Ciscle will continue at MICA on a part-time basis until May 2017. He is proud of what he has accomplished, but he believes it is time for a new director to take the program to the next level. The way he sees it, curatorial practice’s future comes down to three questions: “What is it in the first five years that we were able to achieve, what is it that we still haven’t achieved, and what is it we’ve never thought about?”
Like déjà vu, Ciscle is once again preparing to take a rest before deciding what to do next. “It’s time to look at other ways of service,” he said. “I’m in the process of discovering what that will mean.”