Arts & Culture

Change Agent

BMA director Christopher Bedford brings artistic fervor to his new position.

In a high-ceilinged art gallery at Maryland Art Place in downtown Baltimore, among sculptures and mixed-media works, a crowd forms around a man who has a certain undeniable magnetism. Partly, he stands out because of what he is wearing—the collar is popped on his trench coat, which is open to reveal a baby-pink dress shirt and perfectly pressed slacks.

This preppy attire separates him from the artists and creative types surrounding him, who favor dark colors, army boots, even an ostentatious fur coat. It’s also the man’s demeanor. He holds himself slightly guardedly, as if he’s observing an exhibit in a zoo or some strange foreign ritual. But he does seem to be enjoying himself—an impish, boyish smile often crosses his lips as more people press forward to shake his hand, murmuring continually, “It’s so nice to meet you,” and, “What do you think of Baltimore so far?”

This night in October marks a little more than two months since this man, Christopher Bedford, has become the director of The Baltimore Museum of Art, and the 40-year-old rising star of the art world is just settling in as head of one of Baltimore’s most storied artistic institutions. His new position carries with it a prominence and significance that few others hold in this city, and Bedford seems aware that his mere presence brings a certain level of gravitas to any event he attends. Which could explain why, when he is handed a microphone at this “meet and greet” sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, he doesn’t hesitate to get right to the point.

“I’m asked a lot about why I came to Baltimore, why this job, and why now,” says Bedford, in the slightly posh tones that are a result of his British upbringing. “When I was going through the recruitment process, I asked the chair of the search committee, ‘What do you want to say to Baltimore through art?’ Usually, when I ask something like this, nothing follows in response. But in this case, the board chair said, ‘I want the BMA to be the most dynamic, socially engaged museum in the U.S.’ . . . There’s a real willingness on the part of the museum to pursue that course, and on the other hand, an incredible appetite among you all for change on that scale.”

Bedford appears to understand that getting this room of arts administrators, curators, and artists excited about his vision is key to his success here. So when he is asked about how he plans to get audiences more engaged, he jumps right in with vigor.

“One thing that we’re going to do—and this is really going out on a limb, and I hope no one’s recording this,” he says, with a smile, “we are going to consider and pursue a major satellite location for the BMA.” This kind of full-steam-ahead leadership is characteristic of Bedford, who undertook a similar mission at his prior job as director of The Rose Art Museum in Waltham, Massachusetts. There, he explains, “We couldn’t get the part of the city that we wanted to come to the museum. So, we just decided to relocate it. My feeling at the BMA is that we face a similar obstacle. Young people from every socioeconomic bracket, every race, should understand that the museum is free and open to the public. And I’m not sure we can expect them to know that unless we take it to them.”

“I’d rather make a mistake going a million miles an hour than do nothing.”

A hush settles over the room, and the attendees seem to be weighing this groundbreaking possibility. It’s as if everyone is thinking, “Is what he’s saying possible?”

Since that night, Bedford has doubled down on his ambitious agenda for the 103-year-old BMA, one he hopes will improve the museum’s accessibility and burnish its credentials nationally and internationally. Along with the satellite location (the Lexington Market area has been discussed), the institution plans to hold a series of conversations this fall between renowned artists and writers speaking about social justice-related topics in various locations around the city, and Bedford is aiming to renovate the museum’s second-floor special exhibition galleries. Plus, in a bit of serendipitous timing, the BMA is heading to the prestigious Venice Biennale this spring. While at the Rose museum in Waltham, Bedford was chosen to organize the United States’ pavilion at the world’s preeminent art show, but since he’s here now, the BMA staff has been helping to put together the work of Bedford’s long-time collaborator, California artist Mark Bradford.

It’s quite an enterprising list for someone who has been at his position for eight months—and has never headed up a collection as large as the BMA’s, which holds 95,000 works of art and has a budget of $13.5 million. (In contrast, The Rose Art Museum has a more than 8,000-object collection and a $1.8 million budget.) And Bedford’s pace can be hard to match.

“He certainly hit the ground running, and sometimes I come home quite exhausted from being with him, because he’s got a lot of ideas, a lot of energy,” says Clair Zamoiski Segal, who chairs the BMA’s board of trustees. “It’s a thrill, but I do think, ‘Oh my God, how am I ever going to keep up with someone this smart?’” She laughs. “But it’s been a great pleasure—our partnership has been very rewarding to me, and I really do treasure it.”

Bedford will need that energy. He has big shoes to fill—his predecessor, Doreen Bolger, was the BMA’s director for 17 years, and, in that time, championed free admission, spurred the re-opening of the museum’s historic entrance to the public, and oversaw an unprecedented $28 million renovation. But Bedford is nothing if not confident. “I came [to Baltimore] anticipating considerable rapidity, and I had some assurance from the staff and board that there was a desire to roll up our collective sleeves and imagine a new future for the museum rather quickly,” he says. “I’d rather make a mistake going a million miles an hour than do nothing. Which is not to suggest or anticipate failure—it’s that I’m willing to absorb that to achieve a higher goal.”

And Bedford has a track record of fast success. He essentially turned around the Rose museum—which is affiliated with Brandeis University, also boasts free admission, and at the time was thought of as sleepy and financially unstable—in four years. “He took a leap of faith and came to the Rose at a very turbulent period of time,” says Lisa Lynch, Brandeis’ provost, who worked closely with Bedford. In 2009, at the height of the economic crisis, the university had discussed selling off the art collection as it struggled with finances. Bedford arrived in 2012 and started acquiring and commissioning new art—including an outdoor sculpture by contemporary artist Chris Burden that greets visitors when they arrive—and added a key Boston arts philanthropist to the board. Attendance during his tenure increased by more than 50 percent, and he established an enhanced reputation nationally and in nearby Boston, both for the Rose and for himself. He’s been covered in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and was even named one of 2014’s most stylish Bostonians by The Boston Globe.

“I don’t think the future of museums is going to be written in New York or Los Angeles.”

In particular, Lynch credits Bedford’s establishment of the satellite gallery with making significant inroads. Appropriately called Rosebud, it occupies a storefront in downtown Waltham and showcases part of the Rose’s video art collection while also providing an arts space for use by city residents and college students. “Chris made sure that the museum was actively part of the community. He was constantly looking for ways to break down walls and barriers to access,” Lynch says. “Every time we would have an opening at the museum, it was the hippest, most fun event on campus. You’d have students, people from Boston, and [patrons] from outside areas. You couldn’t go through an exhibition and not be enthusiastic or curious. . . . It was a way of bringing the community together.”

Bedford also highlighted the work of 20th-century African-American artists who had long gone unrecognized—abstract painter and sculptor Jack Whitten and sculptor Melvin Edwards, for example. He intends to continue that emphasis at the BMA, which will present the first major exhibition of Whitten’s sculptures in 2018. Whitten is not only a “tremendous artist,” Bedford says, “but I venture to say, being a novice in this city, that his art will be very useful for social discourse here.” And, as Whitten’s art addresses systemic racism and civil rights, the planned exhibit fits in perfectly with Bedford’s drive for social justice. “There’s a reason why I do this that’s entirely personal,” he says.

Bedford knows now that there was a deeper reason he attended Oberlin College. It goes beyond him discovering his passion for art there—the Ohio institution also helped instill in him a passion for social justice. That aspiration is shared across the campus—Oberlin was the first college in the United States to admit African-American students, and the city of Oberlin was a stop on the Underground Railroad. “I don’t think I realized at the time how formative Oberlin was. It changed everything for me,” Bedford says. “I graduated in 2000, and there was a T-shirt that we made then. It was black with a picture of the world and it said, ‘Think one person can change the world? So do we.’ I still believe that.”

He entered Oberlin intending to study English literature. But that was before he enrolled in an art history class that would change his life. Growing up in Scotland and England—before his family moved to the U.S. when he was 17—his mother took him to museums in London. There he developed a fascination for the impressionists. But that had not prepared him for the lush dexterity that he saw in Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene, a 17th-century painting by Dutch master Hendrick ter Brugghen. And he found the accompanying lecture by professor Bill Hood just as engrossing.

“It was Bill who uttered those fateful words, ‘All art was once contemporary,’” Bedford says. “The light bulb went off. This painting at one point was painted for a civic population, and, I thought, ‘How thrilling would it be to be involved in that process of production and interpretation?’ My progress through the museum field was dictated by those words.”

He worked to incorporate social justice into the art world in positions at The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University, but this drive emerged most strongly at the Rose. It was one of the things the BMA search committee found most appealing about Bedford, says search committee member James Thornton, who also serves on the museum’s board of trustees. “We are in a community that is majority African-American and people of color. If we look out over the years to come, it’s important for the museum to find creative ways to connect with that community. I’m a person of color,” he continues, “and I’ve always noticed that there are people who don’t look like me who are very much committed and are beneficial to moving the equality conversation forward. Chris is one of those people. I think he’s trying to set the record straight.”

Though Bedford has become a visible presence for the museum in Baltimore—he joined the board of directors of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, for example—he says he would like to make further inroads with the artistic community. But he has met with one artist whom he particularly admires, whose work is known for its social commentary—Joyce Scott, a 2016 recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant.” Says Bedford: “I’m excited to integrate her art into the exhibition space. She’s sincere, she’s soulful, she’s brilliant, she’s very connected to the city, and her work is extraordinary.”

Scott says she hopes he brings recognition to local artists (as well as those from farther flung destinations). “That is one thing I hope there would be more of—local artists on display in a real show,” she says. “It’s not like we don’t have them—Baltimore is a hotbed of artists.”

Eight months into the job, Bedford’s day begins early and ends late. When asked if he enjoyed a recent art community get-together, he replies, “Which one?” Still, he is settling into life in Baltimore with his wife, Jennifer, an art historian, and their three children. And his desire to bring about change in Baltimore by making the BMA more open to everyone is as fervent as when he first arrived.

“I’ve said many times that I don’t think the future of museums in the 21st century is going to be written in New York or Los Angeles. It’s going to be written in a city like Baltimore, where we’re going to reconstitute our relationship with our audience through exhibitions, programs, and outreach. Otherwise, we risk irrelevance,” Bedford says. “My ambition is to make Baltimore known to the world and to bring the world to Baltimore.”