Brenda Richardson, who as deputy director and chief curator of the Baltimore Museum of Art made the institution a destination for modern and contemporary art, has died at 79. Baltimore Sunwho first reported news of her passing, said she died of Alzheimer’s disease on Saturday.
During the 23 years that Richardson worked at the Baltimore Museum, she made a point of emphasizing 20th century art. The museum had little shortage of modern art before his arrival in 1975 – the Cone sisters, about whom Richardson wrote a book in 1985, had donated their extensive collection rich in works by Henri Matisse to the museum in 1957. But Richardson helped the museum stay contemporary, acquiring works by some of the best artists of the time and offering them surveys and retrospectives. Since his tenure there, the museum has retained its focus on contemporary art.
Speaking about her work on contemporary art for the museum, she said in a 2011 oral history organized by the Archives of American Art, “It really increased the audience for modern art at the Baltimore Museum of Art. And that was because it wasn’t exclusively regional.
When Richardson joined the museum, she was hired as curator of painting and sculpture. Two years later his position was changed to Assistant Director for Art and Curator of Modern Painting and Sculpture.
In the years that followed, Richardson curated a series of notable exhibitions, including those devoted to Chuck Close, Gilbert and George, Andy Warhol, Barnett Newman, Bruce Nauman and Frank Stella. She also periodically ventures beyond 20th century art for exhibitions such as the 1997 show featuring works from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, which managed to attract nearly 150,000 visitors to the museum.
However, she was also keen to support artists with a connection to Baltimore and earned a prominent place within the city’s artistic community. When the museum opened a new wing in 1982 that expanded its galleries, Richardson mounted solo exhibitions of Morris Louis, Anne Truitt, Grace Hartigan and Clyfford Still, which she called the “four most prominent artists associated with the state or city.” She also offered Baltimore filmmaker John Waters the first institutional survey of his films.
In 1994, Richardson helped the museum grow once again when she oversaw the opening of a new wing devoted to contemporary art. When this wing opened, the Baltimore Sun called her the city’s “iron maiden of art”. In this wing were displayed some of the Warhol paintings that Richardson helped acquire, making the museum at the time the institution holding the second largest collection of canvases by the artist. Among these paintings was The last supper (1986), a 25-foot-long version of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous work that the museum later attempted to dispose of in 2020. (The plan was canceled amid severe public pushback. Prior to its cancellation , Richardson said the plan “horrified her” in a interview with the Washington Post.)
Brenda L. Richardson was born in Howell, Michigan, in 1942. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Michigan, she attended the University of California, Berkeley for her graduate studies, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. in art history in 1966. She worked at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive from 1964 to 1975.
Richardson’s influential career at the Baltimore Museum of Art ended in 1998, when the museum’s board terminated his position amid what it called “administrative restructuring.” Arnold Lehman, who had left the museum as director the previous year, called say it Washington Post that this decision was a “tragic error of judgement”.
Her intense devotion to artists sets her apart from her peers. “Preservatives are all parasites,” Richardson said in his oral history. “You know, we’re just parasites on artists. We must therefore honor them. Asked to elaborate, she continued, “I don’t exist except for the artist – I mean, as a professional.”