The Social Justice Radicalism of the Baltimore Museum of Art

Exterior of the Baltimore Museum of Art, July 2021. (Photo: Maximillian Franz)

The job of a museum is to show art, and the BMA already excels in this area. Leave social justice radicalism at the door.

Tthe Baltimore art museum announced last week that it was exploring ways to “reimagine the structure and function of a museum, taking into account the form a museum would take if an institution was redesigned from scratch.” He received $ 150,000 from the Mellon Foundation. There is a new committee leading the charge. Hope this is a charge nowhere.

This is a “multi-year research and planning project”. In my previous iteration – many years in political life – “a multi-year research and planning project” was listed as the cause of death in the obituary of an idea that someone important loved but no one loved. other did. No one else thought it was politically necessary to appoint a Blue Ribbon committee to escort the corpse from an unsuspecting idea to oblivion.

Hopefully the $ 150,000 from the Mellon Foundation is the price of the funeral, a high price certainly, but a funeral nonetheless. And pray that the BMA bury its frenzied and delusional crack to make the museum a juggernaut of social justice.

“We haven’t made the drastic change that we know is needed,” director Christopher Bedford tells us. “Museums fail to reflect, embrace and serve a diverse audience. Bedford has been on a mission since becoming director in 2016. During his reign, the museum has sold millions of dollars of art from dead white men to buy art from African Americans and women. . That’s fine with me, and the prerogative of the trustees. I think the museum is wrong, however, to buy overpriced works by famous black and female artists when it should be buying works by younger artists, which is cheap and state of the art. and builds careers.

Bedford failed spectacularly earlier this year in his attempt to sell around $ 60 million in art to fund a crazy “equity” initiative. He tried to use a loophole to relax the museum profession’s rule against selling art for operating expenses, a loophole aimed at mitigating revenue losses due to the COVID crisis and helping museums that are truly bankrupt. The pissed off administrators, big donors and former directors of BMA rebelled. The day before the Sotheby’s auction, the humiliated board of directors of BMA and Bedford called off the sale.

Remaking the museum from scratch leaves Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso in the dust.
Left: Mango woman, 1892, by Paul Gauguin. Oil on canvas.
Law: The cellist Schneklud, 1894, by Paul Gauguin. Oil on canvas. (Public domain / via Wikimedia)

I’ve heard that the trustees are looking at what went wrong. I can tell them, by the way.

Now the poor and besieged BMA community is facing yet another stab in a sweeping transformation. Why do people believe that radical transformation – redoing something from scratch – always involves change for the better? Change can also make things worse.

I really like the museum and I love Baltimore. The BMA has a superb collection of French modernism. It’s encyclopedic, with great things from all eras. The BMA is one of the best museums in major cities across the country. It is an art museum, however, not a community center, not a church that leads us sinners to PC heaven, and not, let’s solve it, a toy for the guilty and privileged white liberals.

The committee has one or two heavyweights, but mostly non-profit consultants. Pictured: Keondra Pray (left) and George Ciscle (Courtesy of the museum)

Who is part of this new committee? I google everyone I don’t know these days. Keondra Prier is the project manager. She was director of education at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore for three years and jumped from job to job. She was once an actress and model. Now she is a consultant. George Ciscle was the director of the Master of Fine Arts program at the Maryland Institute College of Art, one of the nation’s top art schools, and he founded Contemporary, the Baltimore art space that hosted contemporary art exhibitions while the BMA did not. Adam Holofcener is a sound artist. His work “engages with white privilege”, about which a lot of his is spent, all specious rattle. He runs the local group of volunteer arts lawyers, a very good cause.

Omar Eaton-Martinez works for the Department of Historic House Museums in Prince George County, Maryland. Kennedy McDaniel is a freelance grants writer who works with nonprofit organizations. Antoinette Peele and Jess Solomon are management consultants focused on nonprofit organizations. Lu Zhang is an artist, researcher and organizer.

The internal project coordinator is Gamynne Guillotte, responsible for the “strategy and execution of interpretation projects, educational resources, public programs and visitor engagement” at the BMA. Fancy title for a well paid museum bureaucrat. The BMA has too many people with the words “strategy” and “innovation” in their titles.

All of them are African-American with the exception of Ciscle, Holofcener and Lu. This decidedly undiversified committee is very heavy on nonprofit consultants. They will join whatever gives them exposure. Artists with higher profiles probably said no. No member of the committee owns a business that actually makes things. There is no art historian. Idiot me, but I’m going to ask, is there anyone from the suburbs? The soon-to-be-designed from scratch museum serves not all affluent Baltimore suburbs. Ciscle is the only member I would call a heavyweight. I love Chris Bedford. He’s a charismatic and intelligent guy who resurrected the Rose Art Museum in Brandeis from a worthy assassination plot. Julius Caesar.

He curated the Mark Bradford exhibition for the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This was the best American deal I’ve seen and for the American pavilion it’s mostly been downhill since then.

Clearly, Bedford wants to transform the world, starting with the Baltimore Museum of Art, but trustees have to tell him that the museum is one of the few institutions in Baltimore that works well. Baltimore is America’s craziest city, beating New Orleans, whose levees, at least, stood after Hurricane Ida. So far this month alone there have been 30 murders in Baltimore, all of them, I believe, black-on-black murders. As horrible as it may be – and this type of violence is one of Baltimore’s greatest and most intractable woes – the BMA has almost nothing in its quiver to help. Six hundred Matisses are only so elastic.

Of the museum, Bedford tells us there are “requirements he must meet to truly be located in the cultural and social fabric of his city.” This bothers me for many reasons. First, Bedford is not from Baltimore. He’s from Scotland. I don’t think he even lives in Baltimore. Second, the BMA is the great civic museum of the city and the region, which means that it is not only already in the cultural and social fabric of the city, it is also the star attraction, along with Johns Hopkins, the Walters Museum and the Roman Catholic Bishopric. . Baltimore is home to more than one demographic.

The BMA is an art museum. He makes art. Within these limits, it can and already organizes exhibitions on many subjects. It shows a lot of different art. His current and upcoming exhibitions look very good. They are broad and attractive, I think, for many interests. I don’t know what he paid for the new art he bought – probably a lot and surely too much – but he didn’t buy anything bad.

I am against race-based hiring and believe a museum should employ the most skilled people it can find, but if Bedford and the trustees want a workforce that reflects the demographics of Baltimore, it ‘is something they can achieve now, without’ redesigning the museum from scratch. Directors can also rectify unfair compensation, promotion and evaluation practices. As I wrote earlier this year, the BMA doesn’t need to sell $ 60 million in art to do all of this.

Monet cannot help rectify Baltimore’s many woes, and there is little that the museum, being an art museum, can do. On the picture : Charing Cross Bridge, reflections on the Thames, 1899-1904, by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. (Public domain / via Wikimedia)

I wonder if this ‘redesigning the museum from scratch’ shit is a scam in Bedford, letting it play the role of a utopian while preserving the status quo. One would think that after the Sotheby’s debacle, the directors would look at other adventures with sorrow. I don’t understand the spirit of the bourgeois trot, however, and I think such people are on the board in greater numbers than I imagine.

Being a playful mind, I thought about what, logically, would happen to the BMA if it was taken apart and redone. These 600 Matisses? Wouldn’t half a dozen do the trick? Fifty pictures of horses? I don’t see anything more elitist than that. Mosaics of Antioch? Tiffany lamps? Fancy money from Baltimore? Is all of this relevant to today’s Baltimore? Shouldn’t he all to be sold ? It’s starting from scratch. Should the BMA sell its intimidating stilt building and create a pop-up art space?

Shouldn’t the board reflect the demographics of Baltimore? That’s 63 percent of African Americans. That’s an average income of $ 75,000. Do you want fairness? This is your criterion.

Baltimore is a large government city. Should the BMA be socialized and become a municipal museum? Say goodbye to your endowment, then. The city will take it and detonate it in five minutes. It’s not just America’s worst-run city. It is also one of the most corrupt. Wouldn’t it be great to see the BMA operate to the same high standards as the Baltimore public schools? Now it’s radical.

Let’s be realistic. I would suggest saying to the Mellon Foundation, “Thank you, but no thank you” and returning their check for $ 150,000. I would suggest that this new committee be dissolved, saving everyone the many hours of discussions and meetings that will surely fail. The director of the BMA wants to play radical, but that’s not what the directors of old and distinguished museums do. If it’s boring, he should try being an evangelist on TV or creating a contemporary art startup space. And those directors sitting calmly and anxiously at meetings, afraid to speak, should shout, “Basta! Stop trying to destroy a good thing, and the BMA is really a very good thing.

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About Margaret L. Portillo

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