Life-long learners with love for the arts
Art means something different to everybody: paintings, music, theater, cinema, photography, architecture, even quilts. The 400 members of the Art Seminar Group (ASG), based in Baltimore County, try to provide access to a deeper understanding of each of those aspects of art.
The group started in 1956, when several Baltimore women, hoping to learn more about abstract expressionism, hired a graduate student from Johns Hopkins University to give them a private lecture. Since then, the Art Seminar Group’s repertoire has expanded, offering lectures on the subjects its members request.
“We all brought our interests to the table,” said Sherry Christhilf, chair of the group and member for more than 20 years.
Now, ASG hosts weekly lectures on art and art history, usually on Tuesdays at 1:30 p.m. Experts — including professors, curators, museum directors and the artists themselves — deliver presentations to paying members, who have an opportunity to ask questions afterward.
Since the lockdowns required by the pandemic, these lectures have been given as digital webinars. Far from discouraging attendance, they have had the opposite effect — expanding the group’s outreach. Usually, in-person lectures would attract 40 to 70 people, according to co-chair Nancy Dorman, a retired partner at a venture capital firm. Now, 80 to 100 people tune into the online lectures.
“Of course, we are doing this because we cannot get together, but it turns out there are positives,” Dorman, 72, said. “We may end up doing more webinars.”
Field trips are special
While lectures are the main focus of ASG, the art collective hosts around 10 field trips per year, ranging from day trips to short overnighters to week-long international trips.
Among many other places, ASG has taken its members to Wisconsin for Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, France for an annual photography show, Texas to study artist Donald Judd, and Mexico to learn about Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
“We have not found any other group in the country like this, and we hear it [from those we meet] when we travel,” Dorman said. “People so often say they wish they had an Art Seminar Group there.”
One of the best perks to traveling with ASG is special access, according to Terry Ulmer, a member for 10 years. “We get to do things that one would normally not [be able to] do if they just bought a [museum] ticket,” she said.
Ulmer, 76, has been on two short domestic trips and, because of ASG, has glimpsed private art collections and participated in behind-the-scenes tours at places like the Frank Gehry theater at Bard College in New York.
She’s also enjoyed the camaraderie of these one- to two-night trips. Traveling with ASG is a way of “continuing my social interaction with people, and also my desire to always be learning and talking about very interesting topics,” Ulmer said.
Another member, Sandy Mason, 76, joined six years ago and has also enjoyed the field trips. On the bus rides, “you get to know some of the members a little bit,” Mason said.
“Some people are like me: We took, decades ago, Art History 101 in college and loved going to museums and know a little bit about art. There are other people who have been very active [in the arts] all of their work life. It’s a nice range of people.”
A post-retirement community
All ASG members are over age 50, and most of them are retired, according to the group’s members. That’s why lectures are typically held on weekday afternoons.
“People are busy at night; they have things to do,” Dorman said. “But if you’re not working full-time, having a program like this during the day is very appealing.”
ASG also provides a learning opportunity. “It’s all the good things you find that you can appreciate when you’re older,” Christhilf said. “It helps your mind to be engaged.”
Above all, the members have established a strong community, according to Ulmer. “This is a group of men and women who love to learn and love art,” she said. “We provide each other with a stimulus.”
Before the pandemic, ASG hosted weekly meetings at locations throughout the area, including Pikesville, Towson and Baltimore City. As a result, Mason, along with her new cohort of friends, has been able to explore Baltimore in a way she never knew was possible.
“It made me realize how much there is in Baltimore,” she said. “You don’t have to go to the Met or the Whitney or Paris or Rome; there’s a whole lot here.”
ASG membership costs $385 per year with access to weekly lectures, special lectures and day trips. The group also requires full members to be members of the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Domestic field trips cost an additional $500 to $1,000, and international trips cost $2,500 to $6,000.
However, the group also offers a second category of participation: Subscribers pay $100 per year, with an additional payment of $15 per lecture, but are not eligible for field trips.
To try out ASG, you may attend three lectures for $15 each (or at the reduced amount of $10 per webinar during the summer due to coronavirus).
To check out online lectures or to learn more about the group, go to artseminargroup.org or call (410) 879-1947.