Museum collections in established institutions come with long histories. So how do you change a museum’s canon? In this episode, we speak with Christopher Bedford, Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director of The Baltimore Museum of Art, about the BMA’s decision in early 2018 to deaccession seven works by blue-chip artists in the contemporary collection in order to strengthen its holdings of contemporary works by women and artists of color.
Christopher Bedford is the Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director of The Baltimore Museum of Art. Recognized as an innovative and dynamic leader for building greater community engagement and creating programs of national and international impact, Bedford served as director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University for four years prior to joining the BMA and was recently Commissioner for the U.S. Pavilion for the 2017 Venice Biennale. Previously, Bedford held the positions of chief curator and curator of exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University. Born in Scotland and raised in the United States and the UK, Bedford has a Bachelor of Arts from Oberlin College, received a master’s degree in art history through the joint program at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Museum of Art, and has studied in the doctoral programs in art history at the University of Southern California and the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London. Bedford is also a noted author and contributor to publications including Art in America, ArtForum, and Frieze, among others.
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Suse Anderson: Good day, and welcome to Museopunks the podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suse Anderson. And this is our final episode for the year and indeed for our second season, but what a year it’s been, this time last year I was still adjusting to being a new mom. When Jeffrey Inscho, my former co-host told me he was going to be leaving the sector to try something new. It was a little terrifying to get that news, but I’m really grateful for the years that we had working together on the podcast, and for his generosity in gifting me Museopunks to continue on without him. Although his departure was the one I felt most keenly in my life comings and goings in sector have often seem to be points of inflection this year that spoke to bigger issue right across the museum field, a number of prominent women and directors and curators were fired or resigned this year when facing hostile boards or leadership, who in particular did not support the work they were doing to redress imbalances in the canon to champion the work of artists from marginalized and excluded communities and to provide inclusive programming.
This idea of institutional change is not easy one when we come across it, frequently in our discussions on this podcast, but it’s been so important and take note of where these struggles actually play out. In a 2016 interview with the newspaper Helen Molesworth, who was one of those prominent women who was fired, notes that most museums to maintain a commitment to an idea of the best or quality or genius. I’m not saying I don’t agree with those as values, but I think those values have been created over hundreds of years to favor white men. One of the things you have to say as a curator is, we are not going to present the value that already exists. We’re going to do the work to create value around these women artists, and artists of color that would just come naturally to the white male artist.
This is a conversation we’ve been having a lot in my museum history and theory class course that I taught during the fall semester at GW. Every week, my students and I would wrestle with the history, the ideas, and the paradoxes that have given shape to museum practice as we know it today. And these questions of normative values or values that are understood as natural or right, those that exist and begin to take form as the canon have emerged over time. As we consider them, we really had to think about how and why things become regarded as museum-quality objects, and much of this as we discuss a little bit in today’s episode is a legacy of an imbalanced history within our sector. Despite this, despite this history, there are many institutions that are making significant efforts to redress the balance of objects on display and to change the canon.
In today’s episode, we look at one museum’s efforts to do just that. Is a museum very close to my heart. It was just over two years since I left the Baltimore Museum of Art to join GW. And one of my few regrets from that move was that I didn’t have a chance to work with Christopher Bedford, the BMA’s director who started only a couple of weeks after my departure. And since Chris arrived at the BMA, I’ve witnessed huge changes within the museum from its programming and exhibition schedule through its hiring practices. These changes were no accident. So today, we’ll find out more about them and ask if, and how, an institution can change its canon.
Christopher Bedford is the Dorothy Wagner Wallace Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art recognized as an innovative and dynamically to for building greater community engagement and creative programs of national and international impact. Bedford served as director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University for four years prior to joining the BMA. It was recently commissioned for the US pavilion of the 2017 Venice Biennale. Previously, Bedford held the positions of Chief Curator and curator of exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University. Born in Scotland and raised in the United States and the UK, Bedford has a Bachelor of Arts from Oberlin College, received a master’s degree in art history through the joint program at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Museum of Art. And has studied in the doctoral programs in art history at the University of Southern California and the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London.
Bedford is also a noted author and contributor to publications including Art in America, Art Forum and Freize amongst others. Chris, welcome to Museopunks.
Christopher Bedford: These very nice to be here.
Suse: It’s so good to have you here. So you started at the BMA in August 2016, which was two weeks after I left which, for me ….
Christopher: It’s tragedy ….
Suse: Absolutely was. It actually one of my big regrets from, when I left the BMA was that we didn’t have a chance to work together. But from looking at the institution in those years since you’ve joined, it feels like a different institution to me. It’s different in terms of its exhibitions. It’s different in terms of its programming. When I think about the staffing and the dynamics of the audiences here, they feel different too. So you obviously saw a really big opportunity here at BMA before you arrived. Can you talk a little bit about what brought you to this museum and why you were inspired by it?
Christopher: Absolutely. I will go back a little bit to my own history to answer the question. I think I’ve been in various different context where social justice, equity, inclusion were variously articulated as the priorities for the institutions, all the way back to say Oberlin College which is the first college to admit African Americans, the first college to admit women and stuff on the Underground Railroad still a very radical context for political thought. I think that’s probably learning art history there, conditioned me to think about finding context that really need different sorts of work done.
I would also say that being the director of the Rose at Brandeis University, which has an incredibly strong social foundation rooted in the Jewish faith, and the desire to use positive forces to shape a better world frankly. We tried to incorporate that philosophy of new world making into a museum’s program through exhibitions and acquisitions so a pretty natural step for me was to try to find a civic museum in a location that required the institution to change its rhetoric, change its face, turn itself inside out to serve that community. So, in thinking about what my transition would be within the museum field. I was seeking exactly this. To add a layer, I think this is drawing on my own history working with artists. I think that the most important pertinent topical work being made today is being made by an expanding group of black Americans, intergenerational group of black Americans ranging from the recently deceased, Jack Whitten but then also Sam Gilliam, Howardena Pindell, Mel Edwards all still living. And then back through sort of middle generations and younger generations, Mark Bradford Mickaenel Thomas, Kara Walker, others who were proposing the art isn’t just an idea of change, it is change itself.
What does that look like in a place like Baltimore, which is a black majority city? So you have this incredibly important creative space and these artists. You have a black majority city that hasn’t always felt at home in a museum like the BMA, which is over a century old. So how do you take those two factors, put them together and change an institution in order to change a city? That’s what we’re trying to do.
Suse: It’s been really interesting. I think one of the biggest changes that I’ve noticed since being here is, the mission and a vision are different. I have a copy of them so I’m going to read them out. The BMA’s new mission states that the Baltimore Museum of Art connects art to Baltimore and Baltimore to the world embodying a commitment to artistic excellence and social equity in every decision, from our presentation, interpretation and collecting to the composition of our board of trustees, staff and volunteers, creating a museum welcoming to all. The new vision proposes that the BMA is seeking to be the most relevant publicly engaged Museum in the United States. The dynamic model for all others.
Suse: This is hugely ambitious. Can you talk about the process of arriving at that new mission and that new vision, and how you got to really such an ambitious agenda for the museum?
Christopher: Yes. We embarked recently on a strategic planning process. And I have to say that my methods of thinking and doing are completely anathema to planning, I don’t like that process at all. But, I found that really richly rewarding. It has been led by a combination of staff and board. That core has remained intact throughout the entire planning process, and it was done at a very deliberate sprint so that it would feel very action oriented and part of those phases and developing what a new BMA would look like, rewriting our self-description, which is the mission and the vision. And I think, I wanted to depart from those cookie cutter descriptions of other encyclopedic museums and different civic contexts. I was averse to the idea that a museum in a different city could be described using the same paragraph as the civic museum.
I wanted to make it stridently distinct, and they want to embrace the values that are going to guide us in the next three to five years. Which is what led to that language, which I haven’t read in some time. So it’s nice to hear you recite and it does capture our direction.
Suse: I think it feels like a living mission and vision to me. And it does seem as I’ve reflected it in the museum, it feels real to me and I think that’s what, one of the reasons it’s so interesting to me. To pick up one thing from it. You talk about the composition of the board of trustees, and of course, I know that’s something museums are often thinking about of how you change the composition of these organizations that are so invested in the institution and have histories of their own are. What’s been the process for that?
Christopher: Well, I would say that change on this scale is only real if you enact it systemically. So I don’t think its okay just to do one exhibition here and there and call it a day. I think the way if there’s something that differentiates the work that the BMA has done over the past 18 months. It’s the fact that we have committed to doing extraordinary work within a very, not narrowly defined range, but sort of a ruthlessly focused range of activity. The way I think about that change is in five different buckets… its collections, meaning principally acquisitions, exhibitions, public programs, staff, and board. If you put those pieces of the puzzle together, that really is the totality of the institution from the inside out and from the outside in. That’s the concept. Every one of those categories has to shift to meet the new version.
We have a public program series, Necessities of Tomorrow, for instance, that is about equity, access, social justice through the work and thoughts about us. We have, you know our art deaccessioning process, which I’m sure we’re going to talk about.
Suse: We are indeed.
Christopher: Our exhibition schedule is, I think pretty self-evident. The board is now, fully one third “people of color,” which is a substantial victory, actually for our governance committee who really drives those efforts. That’s been extraordinary, and we’re making great inroads with staff with a particular focus on curators. I think the person who is most eloquent on the subject is Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation. I’ve heard him speak many times, and we enjoy his attention and his advocacy too. He talks very persuasively about the need to diversify museums at the highest level of governance, specifically the board. You can’t enact change that sticks unless that governing entity changes.
Suse: Yeah, absolutely. I would agree 100% from the conversations I’ve had for this podcast. That seems to be a really critical theme that has continued through, we mentioned deaccessioning, I’ll say, let’s talk collections. I want to talk about how you’ve written about the collection and the vision. You know that it will be a compelling collection for the 21st century, socially relevant cutting-edge acquisitions, exhibitions, and programs, will lead the way both locally and globally. And historical accuracy, merit, and equity will become the basis for a new canon across a museum. Again, it’s incredibly dynamic language. One of the ways that you’ve decided to do this was by selling seven works by white male blue-chip artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, to fund works by women and people of color. Can you tell us, where this came from? Why this was the right solution.
Christopher: Again, it has to do with the specific site of Baltimore, the mission that we’ve set for ourselves, the desire to properly engage the community to represent that community within the walls of the museum. And to acknowledge, this is a black majority city. It has been traditionally a white majority institution, so those things obviously don’t align to produce a new conception of audience. We had to make a change in our acquisition policy, just as we were making a change in our exhibition policy, just as we are making a change in the way that we go about hiring and populating the board of trustees. I think a couple of things, just to frame the conversation. We did actually go about the deaccessioning process in the really, step-by-step conservative fashion. That aligns precisely with AAMD’s mandates for deaccessioning
We were looking at duplication and triplication, we were looking at storage liability. We were looking at poor quality. We were looking at objects that had been on view very infrequently from the time they enter the collection to the present. And those things that did not advance the story that we wanted to tell. That’s the normative criteria for any deaccessioning. So, each one of those seven objects met that criteria, and then some. Of course, I did want to look at objects of considerable value as well. Because if we were going to step through this process, we needed to accrue a sort of war chest to change the institution and to be competitive in the marketplace. That of course, was a big part of it. And I didn’t want to in any way endanger the reputation of the institution by going too far. So it became really important to go step-by-step.
Suse: What have you done with the funds from selling off these works?
Christopher: Well, we’ve now finished the process of sale, we work with Sotheby’s. Some of it was done through auction, some of it was done through private sale, just as a consequence of the scale of the objects and they were better suited to be sold privately. I think the really fascinating thing before I tell you what we did with the proceeds is that, in talking with press in particular about this practice, they said, “so you sold off the work of seven white men and you’re buying all works by women of all sorts of color” and I said, well, that’s absolutely true and I do see your desire to sensationalize it that way. But I also want to say that, if you’re looking for a combination of quality and redundancy within the museum collection and, also value, that will inevitably lead you to the work of white men.
Christopher: That was not by design. It’s the design of the collection that if, as I say to invoke Darren Walker again, he would say that, “the composition of a museum, writ large is a consequence of the way this country was formed, around transatlantic slave trade.” I mean, that everything forms around that social basis. And so, once you acknowledge that reality, dark and damaging as it is it allows you to then think clearly about methods for changing the present. Of course the collection is heavy on the high-value blue-chip paintings by white men, of course, that stands to reason. So it wasn’t by design, and it wasn’t intended to sensationalize, it’s a consequence of history. What we’re attempting to do with the deaccessioning with those proceeds, is quite literally right the ship. We’re writing a different art history that’s based on merit and equity. It’s based on research and what actually happens historically and not based on prejudice. There’s people who contributed to the history of art but have not been written into it. That’s our basis.
We’ve purchased a variety of things. One I will point to immediately the first thing that we committed to the second, we had the proceeds was Jack Whitten’s extreme masterpiece 911, which is from 2006, and I can talk about that at slightly more length then some of the other things maybe if that’s of interest.
Suse: I mean, I think it’s really lovely just hearing about the thought processes behind these. I think even more than specific work, although more so like specific work, is often have these things play out.
Christopher: Well, we wanted masterpieces, not examples that were a real basis here. So Jack Whitten’s 911, was a good example, Amy Cheryl’s extraordinary Planes, Rockets, and the Spaces in Between through 2018. So Amy is also the person responsible for Michelle Obama’s portrait of course. Moving in Radical New Directions. Multiple Figures, a kind of American realism from the 2000 to 2018- 2019 period. Wangechi Mutu’s bronze sculpture Water Woman which is, I think has the capacity to become iconic in relationship to the museum’s new becoming. And then another fabulous example is Julien Issac’s, three-channel video installation in Baltimore, which seemed that had to live in this museum.
Suse: I’m actually really curious about then, how much local artists are also forming part of this because so much of this is about thinking about the local community where local artists fit into this.
Christopher: It is an enormous part. One thing I’ll say about Baltimore, and I’ve never had this experiences as museum professionals is that, outside of New York and Los Angeles, I can engage really deeply meaningfully with work being produced in Baltimore without there being a sliver of compromise in quality. Or the mandate that we collect and show work that’s topical, being socially engaged. From, say, Steven Towns to Amy Sherald, to Melvin Edwards, who now spends more than half of this time annually in Baltimore. We have an incredible group of largely black American painters and sculptors, although some working in the moving image as well whose missions as artists are almost precisely aligned with the one that we’ve assigned for ourselves as an institution. That should come as no surprise because I think the context of Baltimore is shaping their self-imposed mandates as artists. Shinique Smith, is another great example, an artist who is born and bred in Baltimore. And she says that her rhetoric as an artist is unimaginable without the city.
Suse: It’s this lovely sort of cycle that’s been said, that the BMA can actually feel that and vice versa …
Christopher: Yes, absolutely so.
Suse: I’m curious again, thinking about this idea of changing the canon because I think this is again, a really ambitious thing. In the vision, it talks about changing the canon across the museum. Is this something that can scale out? Are we even thinking about how other institutions can also change this canon? Is this a tactic for other institutions to adopt as they think about changing their canon?
Christopher: I mean, I think like every other museum director, I look at applicable models in different institutions, and I try to steal the parts of those models that would work here. Use the Frankenstein in your own museum, based on the best practices of others, and some invention of your own. I do think that one of the reasons to have these conversations or go to conferences and present on the deaccessioning, or diversification or, any of these interrelated subjects is to create a replicable roadmap for others. I think sustainable change with the new museum is one thing, I think creating the hope of sustainable change in others is another thing of tremendous value. I always joke giving these talks, it seems like we had a plan in the retelling. I would say that we didn’t exactly have a plan. We had a conviction, and a desire to change in a variety of different places. And so, when presented with a choice, we try to make the right one.
Suse: That’s an interesting idea. So one of the things I’ve been thinking about this deaccessioning, and this idea of shifting the canon, is actually whether by recirculating these artworks, if anything, it sort of reinforces the existing canon because it puts works back into circulation, and whether that actually has impact on questions around desirability and access to these blue-chip works as well. As one of the things that I’m trying to grapple with this idea of, this model working at scale is, could this deaccessioning actually shifted the canon because it shifts value for women artists, artists of color absolutely. But does it also reinvigorate some of the market around these blue-chip artists?
Christopher: Because presumably, private collectors would then see an opportunity because museums are moving in a different direction. That’s definitely possible. What I will say is, if you look at market trends over the last couple of years, and the way that say, Mark Bradford is performing at auction, Kerry James Marshall another incredible example, the way that commercial galleries are beginning to emphasize men and women of color and their rosters. The world is changing in recognition of a new set of priorities that I think are being institutionally determined. Now, we only participate in the market to the extent that we like everybody else buy and add to our collection, in the way that meet our demands and mission. In that sense, I think museums are still really instrumental in establishing value at the highest level, by committing our scholarship, our time, our resources, and most importantly, probably space on the wall. Because nothing says important, quite like the decision to buy at the permanent collection and put it on permanent display. To me, we are redefining value by taking that step.
Suse: That’s really exciting. You mentioned one of the things that you have been doing, is also changing the staffing profile, particularly in a curatorial area. How are you seeing that then affect decision making in terms of the institution? Having people from different curatorial backgrounds, I’m assuming has to be making huge impact internally around discussions in the museum.
Christopher: I mean, absolutely. I think we are hiring creative minds to fuel the museum. People who are, obviously disposed to the mission that we’ve set for ourselves. That’s an imperative. But I’m a big … And then, I think this is an enormous conviction. If you gather the right people in the room with an emphasis on a diversity of perspectives, you develop the most compelling program. It’s actually difference that produces quality. And I think in almost every field of research, from social science to physics to just, the makeup of a boardroom, you’ll find that a variety of perspectives will always outstrip a kind of more monolithic structure. We’ve tried to embrace that as a structure for our brain trust. And I think the more difference there is in the room, the better our program will be and it’s working.
Suse: Yeah, that’s fantastic. What’s coming up next for you, as you then think about the changes? You’ve done a huge amount in two years. What do you want to achieve over the next two years or five years at coming out of this sort of shifting mission?
Christopher: I want to empower the curators that we’ve hired to be the creative agents that we imagined. I want to continue aggressively adding to the permanent collection and installing it in ways that remake the BMA’s new home, a new representative home for Baltimore. I want to continue to make exhibitions that change the way we think about the canon. A good example of that would be a Joan Mitchell retrospective that we’re co-organizing with SFMOMA, which has a big and substantial tour. That to me is a really profound extension of the mission of the institution. So she, in the view of many scholars, is the greatest gestural painter this country has produced since de Kooning, and yet the number of retrospectives given to Joan Mitchell, versus Jackson Pollock, tells you everything you need to know about the way prejudice has structured art history.
So thrusting her contributions into the global limelight, I think is an extraordinary opportunity.
Suse: Yeah, absolutely. One final question, before I let you go, I’ve spoken a number of times about how much I can see the difference over two years. How much has the pace of change been important to how much you’ve been able to get done because it feels like so much? And I wonder if actually, the desire to just get in and make change very quickly has also enabled you to make such a scale of change?
Christopher: Absolutely. I think it’s a really deliberately not risk-averse way of making change. I think we want to move fast with the expectation that there will occasionally be a mistake but the gains will be innumerable as a consequence. I think that museums impose a kind of, an artificial metabolism on themselves and that we have always been able to move much more quickly than we’ve demonstrated. I think that Baltimore’s been waiting for a very, very, very long time. The conviction of the staff and the board that we’re not going to make the city wait any longer. Move fast because we can.
Suse: Yeah, fantastic. Chris, If people do want to find out a little bit more about this work or if they’re actually interested in following along with what the BMA is doing, where can they find out?
Christopher: They can find out on all of our social media platforms, they can find out on our websites. I think we may not be a full account of every exhibition that’s forthcoming, but the program between 2019 and say 2021, is extraordinary. And encapsulates every value we’ve discussed.
Suse: That’s fantastic, Chris, I will put links to all of those things in the show notes. It has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us.
Christopher: Thank you very much.
Suse: Oh, that’s great.
Thank you, Christopher. It has been really wonderful watching the evolution of this museum that I care about so deeply somewhat unexpectedly. The BMA has become one of my most regular hangouts with the kiddo because it’s a big space she can kind of run around in and with free entry. We’ve been going to the BMA almost weekly since the weather turned cold here in Baltimore. Now working on this podcast and having the conversations it has allowed me to have has been a huge privilege, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to continue it. I want to say a couple of thanks as I wrap-up the season. A big thank you to Dean Phelus, Cecelia Walls, Megan Lantz, Elizabeth Merritt and Robert Stein at AAM, for their continued support of Museopunks. Would also like to thank all of my guests, co-hosts, and everyone who shared their thoughts and ideas with me for the show. It is honestly one of the greatest pleasures that I have to get to have these conversations and do so in public in ways that other people get to hear the responses as well.
I’m really grateful to you, my listeners for continuing to listen and to support me and to get in contact when there’s things that excite you or things that you wish me to dig into deeper. As the year wraps up, I’m going to take a couple of weeks off to plan for the next season. So don’t expect to hear from me for a little while. But I look forward to catching up with you in 2019 to explore more of progressive practice in museums. Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. You can connect with me on Twitter at Museopunks. Or check out the extended show notes at Museopunks dot org. And of course, you can subscribe anytime at iTunes or Stitcher. Hope you have a great end of 2018.