The following is one of several extended looks into figures and institutions selected for “The Deciders,” a list of art-world figures pointing the way forward developed by ARTnews and special guest editor Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean. See the full list in the Winter 2020 issue of the magazine and online here.
Since becoming director of the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2016, Christopher Bedford has set a brutal pace, pursuing what he termed “a rapid, very aggressive, maybe reparations-based change agenda. Rather than just do the occasional exhibition that spoke to a different value system, we completely changed the exhibition schedule.”
There have since been acclaimed shows devoted to Jack Whitten, Senga Nengudi, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and other key black artists from many generations. But beyond developing a program reflective of the city’s diversity and the world at large (in 2020, every one of its exhibitions and public events will relate to women artists), he said, his team began bringing “acquisitions, board, staff, even vendor decisions into alignment with a broader set of deeper values” informed by social justice.
His most radical decision—which caught notice internationally and raised hackles from some quarters when he announced it in 2018—was to auction off seven works, by Andy Warhol, Franz Kline, Jules Olitski, and other white male postwar artists represented by other works remaining in the collection to buy pieces by women and artists of color. The contentious move raised north of $7 million.
“You have to be sort of strategically reckless,” Bedford said, emphasizing that the plan won unanimous board approval. “You have to have done the work in advance and be willing to make the leap when the opportunity presents itself.” As a consequence of the success, he said, “You open up the possibility that you can do it again and in different areas.” (The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art subsequently pursued a similar course, earning more than $42 million from a Mark Rothko at auction to put toward new work by under-represented artists.)
Bedford has also opened a small satellite space of the BMA a few miles away in Lexington Market, a massive, multiethnic food hall in the city’s center, which focuses on “education, art creation, and social service,” he said. His intention was to go “to a community that represents a crossroads of all cultures rather than imagine that that crossroads is going to come to you.”
Discussing his influences, Bedford said that he has looked to socially minded projects initiated by black artists like Theaster Gates (in Chicago) and Rick Lowe (Houston), in addition to his longtime collaborator Mark Bradford’s efforts in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The BMA, for its director, is a key proving ground for a new kind of institution. “One of the reasons that I am drawn to encyclopedic museums,” he said, “is they actually are intrinsically the promise of diversity. We just need to organize them and elevate them to meet that mandate.”