Arts & Culture

What’s Next for the BMA After Christopher Bedford’s Departure?

Twelve local art champions share insight on Black leadership, programming, and the museum’s place in the national landscape.

The next director of the Baltimore Museum of Art should be Black, if the institution is truly going to fulfill its mission of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The next director needs to keep the museum in the national conversation, while also making sure it’s always free to visit, has evening hours, and otherwise serves area residents.

The museum should present art from around the world, but also provide exposure that elevates local artists.

It needs to unleash the staff. Continue with progressive curation. Expand programs. Support the city’s cultural workers.   

Those are a few of the recommendations that members of Baltimore’s vibrant arts community have for the hallowed institution as it embarks on its next chapter, following the resignation of Christopher Bedford as the Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director at the Baltimore Museum of Art. 

After five and a half years in Baltimore, Bedford resigned last week to become director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His last day at the BMA will be June 3. 

News of Bedford’s departure triggered strong reactions about his at times controversial tenure and how the museum has changed under his leadership. Many recalled his emphasis on bringing more diversity to the museum and its collections through initiatives such as a year-long effort to acquire only works by women artists. Others remembered his unsuccessful bid to sell works by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still, and Brice Marden to raise funds to support diversity-related initiatives.  

Even Bedford’s admirers acknowledge that he was a disruptor who challenged the status quo. “Bedford was a great choice for the museum because he really gave it a good dusting in many ways,” says local interdisciplinary artist Laure Drogoul. 

Following Bedford’s announcement, we asked more than a dozen local artists and arts leaders to ponder three questions: Where does the BMA go from here? What does the change in leadership mean for the museum’s future? And what should the BMA try to accomplish next?  

Black Leadership at the BMA

By far, the most frequent response was a call for the board to hire the museum’s first Black director. Proponents say that hiring a Black director would reflect the city’s majority Black population and be the culmination of the museum’s push for diversity and inclusion.

“The biggest takeaway from this is that Chris has set the institution on the right path, and it’s actually pretty great that he had told the board and trustees that he had expectations for leaving after five years,” says muralist Andrew Pisacane, also known as GAIA. “The change in leadership allows for the museum to choose a Black director. I think that’s important.”

“I would love to see that,” says Jerrell Gibbs, a Black artist who was recently featured at the museum for his official portrait of the late Elijah Cummings. “If there was an African-American director at the BMA, that would just continue to attract more people and continue to create that buzz and energy that we need. I think it would really resonate with Baltimore City.”

The museum’s board of trustees assures that they will remain committed to diversity under new leadership. The board plans to announce an interim director in the coming weeks, and will soon begin a “rigorous and expansive search” for Bedford’s replacement, according to board chairwoman Clair Zamoiski Segal.

“We set a course and we are committed to it,” says board member Amy Elias. “That course is equity, diversity, and inclusion. I think we will look for somebody that can build upon that foundation that we established.”

For Bedford’s part, he’s confident that his work won’t be undone.

“When I look at the board and staff leadership, I feel the utmost confidence that the institution will continue in exactly the same direction with the same momentum and the same commitment to leading the field in change,” he tells us.  

Bedford adds that he doesn’t disagree with those who want to see the museum hire a Black director: “Do I think that it would be significant for a majority Black city to have an African-American director at the helm of the institution? In an ideal world, absolutely I do,” he says. “And I think that would go a long way toward completing the vision that we had for the museum beginning in 2016.

“Jim Thornton is about to assume the role July 1 as chair of the board, and he will be the first African-American chair in the museum’s history. So it would be extraordinary to imagine a world in which the two most influential seats at the museum were both occupied by African Americans for the first time.”

Will it be a requirement of the search committee members that the next BMA director be Black? “I don’t think there are ever any guarantees,” Bedford says, “but I feel absolutely sure they will strive to achieve that.”

Visions for the Future

Other arts leaders brought up specific goals they’d like to see the next director accomplish, from expanding programs and filling gaps in the permanent collection to mending fences after the deaccessioning controversy.

For all that Bedford did since he arrived in August of 2016, the BMA still has a “wonderful tableau” of issues to address, says Leslie King-Hammond, professor emerita of the Maryland Institute College of Art.

“First of all, you have the issue of looking at the collection and making sure that it is reflective of telling the narrative of American art history, as well as European art history—what I call ‘Whole History.’ You have to address the fissures, the gaps, the erasures, the exclusions, the negations, the misconceptions, the bad information.”

Bedford “established a very sound platform upon which the Baltimore Museum of Art needs to explore, expand, and invest,” she says. “In so many ways, he has afforded Baltimore and its regional counties the opportunity to see how a museum can really function in the 21st century, during the time of a pandemic.”

Now, the job is to make sense of it all, she says. “We have to present a fresher vision of what our creative art world is saying about the worldThe museum sits in a very, very important position to play a large role in helping everyone find a path through the craziness of this time that we’re living in.”

Additionally, many want to see the museum continue to strike a balance between serving the immediate community and maintaining a national and international profile.

“As Baltimore residents, we want the BMA to serve Baltimore by being free, by having more diverse programs, by being accessible in various ways,” says Ellen Lupton, the Betty Cooke and William O. Steinmetz Design Chair at the Maryland Institute College of Art. But in the last few years, the BMA also “has turned up more in national news about museums—the whole thing of [acquiring] only work by women and of course the deaccessioning move,” Lupton says. “I happen to think that a lot of things that Christopher Bedford did were very cool. So I’d like to see the BMA still be in the national conversation about museums and how museums can change and respond to society. I think he did that. He put the BMA in the national conversation.” 

Filmmaker, writer, and board member John Waters says he’d like the museum to continue presenting art that draws attention and makes people think.

“Where does the BMA go from here? Hopefully forward with the radical embrace of the newest art that causes trouble and gets the public inside its doors to begin to see the world in a different way,” Waters tells us. 

Waters mentions previous BMA leaders Arnold Lehman and Brenda Richardson, who “had the BMA in the spotlight of the international art world, and so did Chris Bedford for very different—but just as controversial—reasons. Let’s combine both of their visions and make the BMA the center of attention for diverse and courageous programs that startle the museum-goer and open their mind,” he says. 

Drogoul, co-founder of the 14K Cabaret and winner of the first Janet & Walter Sondheim Art Prize, says she’d like to see the museum do more to attract visitors by offering enriching experiences—be it poetry readings, live music, or performance art—to supplement more traditional exhibits. She calls it “shifting from commodity to experience.”

“As we move forward, our culture is communicating in ways that are different than before,” she says. “Experiences and artists that work in that realm…could make a more vibrant and more activated cultural space. I think if you don’t do that, you get a little musty.” 

Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum—who is stepping down from her position in April—urges the next director to take full advantage of the BMA’s current staffers and the energy they provide.

The past six years of BMA leadership under Christopher Bedford built on his predecessor Doreen Bolger’s meritorious outreach to embrace and welcome in grassroots Baltimore artists,” she says. I feel the first task of the next BMA leader will be to creatively and palpably rekindle a real sense of joy, respect, fun, and community belonging within its own staff that will then more naturally radiate out to the greater good of our whole community. The noble task of museums is to ignite the muse in their visitors of all ages—first timers and art cognoscenti.”

Goya Contemporary Gallery vice president Amy Eva Raehse echoes Hoffberger’s sentiments about the BMA staff. “It is important to remember that one person does not act as a singular armature to hold an institution in place. Rather, leaders are tasked with inspiring vision, and giving space to those who comprise a larger team,” she says. “An abundance of strength endures at the BMA. Individuals who are well-informed of the thriving art community in our own backyard, while championing the work of ascending international luminaries, previously overlooked visionaries, and celebrated artists from the collection’s holdings.” 

The BMA could do even more to mobilize the community through art, says MICA president Samuel Hoi. “Where it can continue to explore, and is certainly on the path, is its role as a mobilizer of public action by cultivating civic awareness and knowledge through art engagement and how to translate its bold current agenda into on-site and community-based programs that attract more and increasingly diverse audiences and supporters.”

With the attention it’s getting, the BMA “has the opportunity to turn the museum into a welcoming center where people from all walks of life want to convene, reflecting the diversity of Baltimore, and where people come together to explore their differences through art and to imagine together a better future,” Hoi adds. “That’s a tall order, but BMA has the potential for that kind of role.”  

Making Amends

The BMA also needs to make amends with some members of the community who opposed the plan to auction three works to support diversity initiatives, says attorney Laurence Eisenstein, one of the opponents of the sale, which was called off at the last minute. Additionally, Eisenstein says he thinks the BMA needs to be more transparent about its deaccessioning process from now on.  

“There are a lot of people who feel very dearly about the museum, myself included, who were not only unhappy with the deaccession process, but very unhappy with the way it played out and the personal attacks that were made on us,” he says. “I am hopeful that the level of rhetoric, which became very heated during the deaccession move, can be rolled back, and that we can resume more cooperative, friendly dialogue where everybody is working together in the museum’s interest. 

“Time heals all wounds in some respects,” he adds, “but there are definitely still raw wounds from the deaccession process that need to be healed. My hope is that a new director will want to heal those wounds and move forward.”

Bedford says he has been in contact with some people who opposed the sale, and would be happy to speak with others. He also thinks the next director will have an opportunity to reach out to opponents of the sale as part of the process of meeting with community members to gather feedback about the museum.

 “I have been in touch with people both nationally and locally that did not agree with the decision. I always say—and I don’t mean this glibly—‘There are no crises in art history,’” Bedford says. “Nobody is bleeding out on the operating table. We all want many of the same things. When I look back on it, I find the level of vitriol slightly preposterous only because, at the end of the day, we are dealing with art and art history. Of course, we were attempting to mobilize art and art history to make actual social change within and without our institution. Nevertheless. . .”

Bedford reiterates that he’s open to more dialogue: “I would be happy to talk to anyone on both sides of that conversation at any time, represent my own position in a balanced fashion, and listen to theirs. I do think it will be easier for an incoming director to come into the city and in a moderate sense, listen to all sides and bring them together. I think that that’s a function of being new. And I would assume having that kind of diplomat hand for that work will be a criterion that the search committee will look for in someone.”

Both the incoming and outgoing directors can play a role in addressing lingering concerns about the deaccessioning process, he says. “I think I can do some of that reconciliation work with stakeholders in my final months. And to complement that, it will be a great opportunity for an incoming director to take those reconciliation steps many, many paces further.” 

Despite the controversy, the museum hasn’t seen a drop-off in contributions, Bedford adds.

“Our fundraising is more successful than it ever has been in the BMA’s history—in terms of capital, annual fund campaigning, and endowment campaigning,” he says. “I’ve seen a radical uptick in contributions. You can see it in the exhibition schedule. You can see it in the acquisitions we make. You can see it in the dedications of the two new centers on the first floor of the museum. If there were any rescinded gifts, I’m not aware of them.”  

Looking Ahead

For now, the call to hire a Black director is perhaps the most pressing issue. Some arts leaders came right out and said it’s an important consideration. Others were less direct. 

Sam Christian Holmes, a local artist and member of Baltimore’s Public Art Commission, didn’t immediately say he wants the next director to be Black. But he acknowledged that choosing a Black director would be consistent with Bedford’s goals for diversity and inclusion.

Holmes says his chief requirement would be that “the museum doesn’t revert, and instead maintains its progressive momentum. It must move forward with more challenging and audacious ideas that will test the museum community to raise the ante for progressive art curation.”

Nicholas Cohen, executive director of Maryland Citizens for the Arts and former director of Community Engagement at Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is more emphatic.

“I’m excited about the BMA and how it can move forward,” he says. “Chris was here for six years. He’s laid some good foundations down. But now the board has a task of [deciding] who they bring in that has a vision for the city and how to make the BMA relevant within Baltimore. How is it really Baltimore’s museum? How to make it so that people of the entire city feel like it’s theirs and not just maybe…in the Guilford-Roland Park area.”

Plenty of organizations “have put out Black Lives Matter statements and all this,” Cohen says, but the BMA has a rare chance to back up statements with action.

“There’s an opportunity there to make good on all those statements on equity and diversity and inclusion,” he says. “Baltimore’s a unique market in that this city is majority Black, so I think we need to make sure that our arts and our culture mirror that. This is a moment in the city’s arts history that could be a huge move forward.”