In the 1990s, crowds packed the Walters Art Museum to see a touring show of artifacts from the reign of China's first emperor. They flocked as well to the Baltimore Museum of Art to see a collection from London's Victoria and Albert Museum.
Those were the days of the so-called blockbusters, the traveling exhibits of high-profile art. The prevailing trend now at museums in Baltimore and across the country is to cut down on the number of touring shows.
"They're expensive, and money is so tight," said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Museum of Art. "We would have brought in two major shows in 2007-2008, but we couldn't afford it."
Museums aren't left with empty galleries, however. They are hunting and scouring — inside their own collections.
And that is giving visitors a different experience, a different perspective. In many cases, they're seeing pieces that have been brought out of the vaults for the first time. Long-displayed works might be moved into new settings, juxtaposed with different items.
"The permanent collections need to be revitalized," said Jay Fisher, the BMA's deputy director for curatorial activities, "so that people will come back and feel something different."
The Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, just wrapped up a large and provocative photography exhibit, "Seeing Now," drawn from its extensive collection. Another big, in-house show will open in the fall.
At the Walters, several popular shows have likewise been assembled from its permanent collection, including a jewelry exhibit in 2008.
More intimate exhibits are regularly put together each season; several Walters-owned drawings, prints and watercolors with a nautical theme will be featured in a show that opens Saturday. Another, focusing on the museum's collection of writing instruments, will open next month.
The Baltimore venues are hardly alone in looking inward, especially since the Great Recession began. The Association of Art Museum Directors reported in 2009 that 70 percent of directors surveyed indicated that they would showcase more of their permanent collection in future exhibitions.
With their extensive holdings, Baltimore's two major art museums are in a particularly strong position. The Walters owns about 35,000 objects, the BMA more than 90,000.
At any given time, the public sees only 15 percent to 20 percent of the Walters' collection.
"Our curatorial staff is very good at building exhibits out of our own collections," Vikan said. "This stuff belongs to the city of Baltimore. Our job is to get out of the way and let the people enjoy what is theirs."
Vikan said "two or three major shows" drawn from the museum's holdings were in the planning stage and would be produced in the next few years. "We have been given some collections that will be revealed in the fullness of time," he said.
The BMA's practice of delving into its vaults predates recessionary pressures. It started with the arrival of Doreen Bolger as director in 1998.
"Before Doreen, the attitude here was that we were dependent on the outside exhibits to get as many people inside the door as possible," Fisher said. "When Doreen came, there was a decided shift to do more exhibits centered on our own collection."
With museums pursuing more in-house ventures and the recession still restricting growth, inter-institutional lending of art might be expected to slow down.
"There was a low level of borrowing from us as the markets took a nose dive," Vikan said. "But it has come back. The general sense is that things are coming back in other places, too."
The BMA has noticed no drop in loan requests over the years. "It seems that someone is asking for [Matisse's] 'Blue Nude' almost every week," Fisher said.