There, they encountered something strange: art like they had never seen before, a new-to-them class of work called Abstract Expressionism. (Formally credited as beginning in 1946, the movement likely was still gaining popularity a decade later.) One of the women, Sue Baker, suggested they hire Kenneth Sawyer, a Johns Hopkins graduate student and Baltimore Sun art critic, to teach them more about the mysterious works of Pollock, Rothko and the like, and Baltimore’s Art Seminar Group was born.
Though the group’s beginning was simple, it was hardly humble. Not long after the ASG began meeting, the scope of its topics of study grew rapidly, matched only by its membership. Soon, to belong required a financial commitment not only to the ASG, but also to the city’s art and cultural institutions.
Even now, ASG members must also belong to the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum as well as pay annual dues. Six decades later, the group meets each Tuesday at the Suburban Club at 1:30 p.m., nearly without fail, and always on a nuanced, sophisticated aspect of arts or culture (some recent examples — “The Art of Renaissance Venice Parts I-V”; “Fairy Tales on Broadway — Not Just for Kids: From the Glass Slipper to the Ruby Slipper”; “Protecting Fertility in Fra Filippo Lippi’s Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement in the Metropolitan Museum of Art”).
About 50 to 75 people attend each lecture, and while the ASG takes trips domestically and abroad, it is not a social group in the vein of a book or supper club. There are no weekly refreshments or cocktail hours. It is, and always has been, about education.
“What we have cared about coming down from the founding mothers is the quality of the programming,” says Sherry Christhilf, the group’s co-chairman. “We’re picky. We have very good speakers, and a good variety of speakers. We take care of them — we pay them, and always have. Many places don’t do that.”
Partially responsible for the group’s gravitas was founding member Beatrice “Beatty” Levi, a sociocultural tour de force often credited for the creation of the group (though she always credited another member).
Levi, with her strong personality and consummate cleverness, was what her daughter, Margaret, called a “culture vulture.” Despite, or perhaps because of, her underprivileged upbringing, Levi had developed a nearly insatiable interest in the arts.
“She truly was the force behind maintaining the quality of our lectures,” Christhilf says. “She demanded the highest standards for not only the speakers, but the topics.”
At the ASG’s outset, however, Levi was not a major player in the group, not even attending the first few lectures. Instead, she was deeply entrenched in the League of Women Voters, where she worked toward the rights of women and African-Americans in the city. Though daughter Alice Duncan cannot say for sure whether Levi set out to achieve a similarly minded cultural unification through the ASG, the group is often quietly credited for bridging the so-called “Falls Road Divide,” a separation between Jewish and Christian communities in Baltimore.
In this and many ways, says member Edith Nichols, “it’s an incredible group that no one knows anything about.”
Until recently, this relative anonymity hadn’t impacted the group much. Its insularity had helped to maintain a certain level of prestige, and there was always a waiting list despite its having never advertised. But, as Nichols says, “it’s an old group. It’s losing members.”
“Most of us are of a certain age,” adds membership co-chair Dorothy Boyce, though she says that membership has basically stayed stable at around 330 members. “We would love nothing more than to reach a younger group, but so many people are working and can’t take the time to get away.”
Several members, in fact, mentioned the meeting time as a hindrance to a younger membership. “We’ve talked about it,” says Boyce. “As with many organizations comprised of older members, change can be slow.”
One can’t help but wonder, too, whether such a group can survive in the internet age, where information is easily accessible and digital natives have a world of arts and culture at their fingertips. Can an hour-long lecture continue to engage in a Wikipedia world? These and other questions are on the minds of the members. But in the meantime, the group is happy to continue Beatty Levi’s legacy of serious cultural study.
“It keeps your mind active and keeps you engaged,” says Boyce. “I think it’s extremely important. It also is important to understand relevance, and Art Seminar certainly helps with that. The art scene is constantly changing. Our world life is constantly changing. Everything around us is changing.”
“My late husband used to say he wanted to keep alive from the neck up,” says member Margot Heller. “There’s always something to learn. I expect to do it until the day I die.”