After a controversial run leading the Baltimore Museum of Art, Christopher Bedford is set to take the helm at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He replaces Neal Benezra, who announced plans to step down last year amid a period of tumult at SFMOMA. Bedford will start at SFMOMA in June.
Bedford has been director of the Baltimore Museum since 2016, and has polarized the art world with his efforts there. Although he has successfully created a more progressive image for the institution, which has made a priority of showing and collecting works by women and contemporary artists of color, Bedford has also come under scrutiny for selling off works by white males that are owned by the museum in the name of diversity. Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight, who has frequently inveighed against deaccessioning, once wrote that the BMA became “the leading poster child for art collection carelessness.”
Bedford has been one of the figures most closely aligned with advocating for institutions to deaccession works by white male artists, a practice that intensified during the pandemic, when the Association of Art Museum Directors, a prominent industry group, relaxed restrictions on the practice. In 2020, when the Baltimore Museum attempted to sell several works, including a monumental Warhol painting, at Sotheby’s for total of $65 million, the institution faced such intense pushback that it was forced to abandon the plan. Still, in the past five years, it has sold other works by Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, and Warhol without quite as much fanfare.
In undertaking these sales and in placing a greater priority on painting a more diverse picture of contemporary art, Bedford made himself known as a forward-thinking museum director willing to take risks, even if they were going to be unpopular in more conservative parts of the art world. During his tenure, the museum devoted an entire year to art by women, in 2020, to mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, and it was selected to organize the U.S. Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, which that year went to Mark Bradford. This year, the museum will host a Joan Mitchell retrospective that it co-organized with SFMOMA.
In a statement, Bedford hinted that diversity would remain a key point of his time at SFMOMA, saying, “I want to thank the search committee for a thoughtful and engaging interview process, which captured a vision for SFMOMA that is grounded in commitments to equity and artistic scholarship. These values have been core to my work throughout my career, and I am very much looking forward to collaborating with SFMOMA leadership and staff to further define and develop the museum’s mission, priorities and program. This work will by necessity require much listening and learning on my part, and I am excited to begin the process when I arrive in San Francisco in June.”
Bedford comes to SFMOMA following a time when the museum is still attempting to recover from a tumultuous 2020. That year, SFMOMA issued a series of layoffs and furloughs, and was accused of censorship. Amid the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Taylor Brandon, a former Black staff member in the museum’s communications department, posted a comment critical of a post by the museum’s Instagram that featured a work by Glenn Ligon; SFMOMA later deleted the comment. Amid pushback, Benezra apologized to Brandon. The month afterward, Gary Garrels, SFMOMA’s senior curator, resigned after saying at a staff meeting that the museum would be committing “reverse discrimination” if it stopped acquiring work by white men.
Before Benezra resigned in 2021, he had been at the museum for 19 years. He said at the time that the controversies of 2020 did not impact his decision to leave the museum when he announced his plans to step down. During Benezra’s tenure, SFMOMA also repeatedly faced suspicion over the way it presented a 1,000-work collection loaned by late Gap founder Donald Fisher and his wife Doris, who sits on the SFMOMA board.
In a statement, the search committee that selected Bedford said, “We have found in Chris a brave, empathic, inclusive and passionate leader; he is at a point in his career that combines impressive achievements with an open mindset and the ability to listen, learn and evolve with and for our community. He prioritizes collaboration, dialogue and engagement across leadership, staff and audiences—values and skills that are exactly what we were looking for. We are thrilled to welcome him to the Bay Area and to SFMOMA, and we are eager to work with him in support of an exciting future for the museum.”