Arts & Culture

New BMA Director Asma Naeem Wants the Museum to Reflect the Cultural Vibrancy of its City

At a pivotal time for museums, Naeem’s work is helping to shape and shift the BMA to become a better reflection of current culture.
Asma Naeem poses in the modern wing of the BMA. —Photography by Micah E. Wood

Imagine walking inside an art museum to find men spitting chew tobacco on the floor, friends calling to one another across galleries, people singing, dogs barking, rowdy teenagers, and mothers soothing crying babies.

Though it might be hard to believe today, if the year were 1860 or thereabouts, this scene would be fairly typical.

But, with the rise of technology—and its subsequent noise (think telegraphs, typewriters, phonographs, sewing machines, and so on)—came the regulation of sound in public spaces like museums, as Asma Naeem asserts in her dissertation turned 2020 book, Out of Earshot.

“[Museum officials] were in effect encouraging aural behaviors associated with ‘cultured’ persons and discouraging those associated with the ‘lower’ classes,” writes Naeem, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s former chief curator, who was announced as its new director in January.

Today’s museums, like the BMA, are more like libraries or houses of worship, where the only sounds you might hear are hushed voices or quiet heels against empty halls and tiled floors. It gives museums a rarefied, impersonal air that does not truly reflect the art inside.

“I always think of art as having this aural component or a soundtrack,” says Naeem, “and I always thought museums were missing that.”

Only amplifying the silence in 2023 is the fact that, for the past two decades, museum attendance has been steadily declining across the United States. And while this downtrend is likely due in part to people finding entertainment through the internet (with an assist from the COVID-19 pandemic), museums have increasingly received criticism in recent years for their pretension, irrelevance, and gatekeeping that do not accurately represent America’s diversity of race, gender, class, politics, or ideas.

Throughout her career, Naeem, 53, has been working to dissolve some of those conventions. First, as a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, where she diversified the D.C. institution’s collection by featuring portraits of rappers, including one of late Baltimorean Tupac Shakur, which brought new dialogues and audiences to the space. And, more recently, at the BMA, where she has continued that effort by examining the. historical context of the museum and its collections while championing underrepresented artists—particularly people of color, women, and local artists, such as late Baltimore-based printmaker and sculptor Valerie Maynard, whose work Naeem co-curated for the artist’s first major museum exhibition in 2020.

In 2018, just before Naeem was hired as chief curator, the BMA deaccessioned seven artworks from its contemporary holdings in order to create space for work by underrepresented artists, i.e., those who were also women, Black, Indigenous, self-trained, or had connections to Baltimore. Over the next three years, the museum acquired 125 works by 85 artists—the majority of whom were represented for the first time in the collection.

Several of these new acquisitions were shown in the 2021 contemporary exhibit, “Now Is The Time,” including work by homegrown artists like Maynard, Jerrell Gibbs, and Theresa Chromati. The show provided the public with a visual account of the curatorial efforts led by Naeem, as well as those by Katy Siegel, former BMA senior programming and research curator, who has since left her post to join the staff at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (Another deaccessioning in 2020 created a bit of a stir in the art world, and the BMA responded by taking the three pieces that were set to be sold, one of which was an Andy Warhol, off the table.)

“I want to build upon the fantastic work that the BMA has done in the past few years and continue to make the museum a space that is welcoming, equitable, dynamic, and engaging for our visitors and for our staff as well,” says Naeem about her vision as director, noting that efforts will be focused on exhibitions and collection practices, as well as programming and partnerships with the likes of schools, universities, arts organizations, and other community members. “It’s in these collaborations that I think we stand to make the greatest positive impact.”

A perfect example is the forthcoming exhibit, “The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century,” which will fuse Naeem’s interest in the sound—or the lack thereof—of the art world with her passion for making it more inclusive. Co-curated by Naeem and on view at the BMA from April 5 to July 16 before moving to the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) for the remainder of 2023, the show comes during the 50th anniversary of the dawn of hip-hop and explores the genre’s past 20 years through sound as well as visual art, fashion, and ephemera. It was created in collaboration with BMA chief education officer Gamynne Guillotte, staff at SLAM, and a wide-ranging advisory board featuring creatives from Baltimore and around the world.

“Music is a big part of my life, but I’m not a musician in any sense of the word,” says Naeem, who has been dreaming about this project for several years. “Hip-hop was just an incredibly energizing sound that I started to hear coming from the radio in the ’80s as a teenager. To hear this new way of rapping was amazing. I spent a lot of time listening to the lyrics. And I loved to dance. That’s how I primarily spent my youth: in dance clubs…And what really gravitated me toward this idea for the exhibition was the ways in which, as a cultural phenomenon, hip-hop has seeped into every aspect of our lives and created a powerful visual set of languages that are both obvious and not so obvious everywhere around us.”





In a first for the BMA, the exhibition will include atmospheric soundscapes—not audio through headphones, as museums have embraced for years, but a sonic experience that envelopes visitors as soon as they step foot inside the show, with two recordings created by Baltimore musicians Wendel Patrick and Abdu Ali heard throughout the exhibition space.

“The Culture” will also highlight visual work by local artists such as photographer Devin Allen; filmmakers Nia June, APoetNamedNate, and Kirby Griffin; sculptors Murjoni Merriweather and Joyce J. Scott; and painters Ernest Shaw Jr. and Derrick Adams; plus art-world giants like photographer Carrie Mae Weems, mixed-media artist Mark Bradford, and late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat; as well as pieces by global fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood and Louis Vuitton’s Virgil Abloh. Baltimore-born artist Shinique Smith will also create a commissioned mural near Lexington Market in conjunction with the show. Several other city creatives are included in the exhibition catalog, too, such as musician TT The Artist and cultural critic Lawrence Burney, who founded the local arts publication True Laurels.

At a pivotal time for museums, Naeem’s work is helping to shape and shift the BMA to become a better reflection of current culture. And she feels an exhibit like this will go a long way toward demonstrating that the BMA is serious about serving as a mirror of its community.

The BMA is not unique in its efforts to reexamine its mission statement and implement changes, as museums nationwide have been historically composed of majority-white leadership, boards, and featured artists. Internationally, museums have begun to “confront entrenched economic and racial inequities, and the ways in which those are encoded in museum collections, presentations, staffing and organizational cultures,” wrote museum advisor and journalist András Szántó in The Art Newspaper in 2020. Many are reframing their objectives to redress prior wrongs and ultimately make, says Szántó, “their buildings and campuses more hospitable to everyone.”

The current BMA staff is overwhelmingly made up of women, with people of color and gender-nonconforming people represented as well, ultimately making the museum more reflective of society as a whole. After Christopher Bedford’s departure as director last June, Naeem became interim co-director of the museum, alongside chief operating officer Christine Dietze, before being hired for the top post at the beginning of this year, making her the first person of color to lead the BMA.

On the surface, Naeem’s former life as a criminal prosecutor in New York City might seem at odds with her role as a museum director and curator. But the overlap is her desire to effect positive social change. After burning out on life as an attorney, she pursued a master’s degree in art history at American University in D.C., followed by a PhD in art history from the University of Maryland, College Park, ultimately returning to Baltimore, where she grew up after immigrating to the U.S. from Pakistan as a child.

“Asma is profoundly brilliant as a scholar, has a strong vision as an arts leader, and has tremendous and considerable personal warmth…[a combination] that’s rare to find at this level of work,” says “The Culture” co-curator Guillotte. “She’s not afraid to lead with her emotion because she knows that is part of where her intelligence as a scholar and a thinker and a leader is.”

When planning the exhibition, “it was essential that we include local artists, because hip-hop itself is a set of local histories,” says Naeem. “Baltimore has such an incredibly vibrant history of hip-hop. There’s no way that we could pay homage to this canon without including some of the incredibly talented Baltimoreans.”

And that includes visual artists who capture the spirit of hip-hop in their work. Like sculptor Murjoni Merriweather, for instance—a recent Maryland Institute College of Art graduate and Prince George’s County native turned Baltimore resident, whose sculpture “Z E L L A,” one of about 50 busts that the 27-year-old has created using various mediums, depicts a Black woman whose hair is pulled into a dramatic high ponytail woven entirely out of hair extensions.

“Hip-hop is such a huge part of Black culture, and it’s a fight to normalize who we are as people—what we create, what we wear, who we decide to be—which goes hand in hand with my artwork,” says Merriweather, whose works also often feature hoop earrings and metallic grills. “I don’t want people to see grills and think they’re intimidating or some type of danger. They are just teeth jewelry, at the end of the day. I want people to start thinking like that, instead of putting stereotypes on them and making us seem like less-than.”

To make the exhibit as authentic as possible, Naeem brought together a diverse selection of hip-hop experts to be a part of its advisory board, consisting of individuals across academia, music, fashion, and art, such as Martha Diaz, founder and president of the Hip-Hop Education Center at New York University; Tef Poe, a St. Louis-based rapper and activist; and Brazilian anthropologist and curator of Afro-Atlantic histories, Hélio Menezes.

Locally, Wendel Patrick has helped lead the charge. The Boom Bap Society musician has almost single-handedly brought hip-hop to Peabody Conservatory, where he serves as a professor. Part of his role with the BMA advisory committee, alongside fellow local artist Abdu Ali, was to ensure that hip-hop history was presented with accuracy.

“I’ve been an educator at the university level since 2001, so I’ve observed and absorbed the ways in which institutions tend to think about the dissemination of information,” says Patrick. Since the earliest days of hip-hop, which is said to have been invented on the streets of the Bronx by DJ Kool Herc in 1973, “There’s been a real beauty in the way that people have been able to ingest knowledge [about hip-hop] that hasn’t been in a traditional educational setting, where there is a curriculum where people have decided what is important and, by virtue of that, what isn’t.”

When hip-hop is documented in museums or studied in institutes of higher education, continues Patrick, “It’s important that it be accurate or represented in a way where opinions are representative of people who have been present for a significant period of time.” Which makes this exhibition perfectly timed, with its curatorial intention aligning with the more overarching refreshes and newfound mission of the BMA.





The exhibit will also include an archival aspect that goes beyond its comprehensive catalog. Fans and artists will be encouraged to share their experiences by scanning and uploading documents—old ticket stubs or concert fliers, for instance—and telling their own stories, which will appear as an online collection. Items can be scanned either inside the exhibit space or from a phone or computer offsite.

“It was so valuable to have [the idea of] education in the room from the jump, because typically in the way exhibitions come about, education comes into the process once the artworks are decided, the checklist is decided, the floor plan is laid out, and then we come and do the icing on the cake,” says Guillotte. “Asma wanted to bring this in early on in the process.”

Every time the curators got together, their discussions centered around inclusivity and accessibility: Why is this relevant to our visitors? Who is the audience? How will we be engaging with them? What kind of context do they need to be able to understand what we’re presenting? What kinds of barriers do we need to remove to that understanding?

“The Culture” is merely one lens through which to see how the BMA is shifting—in terms of its subject matter, which audiences it’s trying to reach, and whose work is and isn’t included. Last spring, the museum launched the “Guarding the Art” exhibition, envisioned by Naeem and curated by its own security department, and last July, the nearly 140 employees also voted to form a union, becoming Baltimore’s first local institution to do so.

Asked what she thinks the role of an art museum is today, Naeem says, “That’s the million-dollar question that all of us, as stewards of a collection, are trying to work toward, making sure we’re preserving the integrity of our communities around us. What we need to be doing as museum leaders is building a collection of artistic excellence that goes beyond certain cultures and histories that have previously been championed.”

She points to the ways in which, up until the 20th century, women artists did not have access to art schools or artistic materials like oil paints or canvases and would resort to what is known as the decorative arts, a topic which will be discussed in an upcoming exhibit, titled “Making Her Mark.”

“When I think of the ways in which we can tell a far more inclusive story of art-making in our current day, that means interweaving a number of different kinds of art forms,” says Naeem, suggesting incorporating the likes of fashion, and not just couture—but streetwear, too. “If we are going to be including in our permanent collection and displaying 19th-century African jewelry, why can’t we be displaying 21st-century African-American jewelry inspired by hip-hop?”