Baltimore Museum of Art appoints Christopher Bedford as next director

Meet the "accidental art historian" appointed to lead the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Baltimore Museum of Art has chosen as its next director Christopher Bedford, who at age 39 already has achieved art world coups.

After a 10-month international search that attracted about 270 candidates, the museum's board of trustees voted Monday to appoint Bedford to succeed Doreen Bolger, who stepped down last June after 17 years as the museum's leader.

Bedford will become the 10th director in the museum's 101-year history on Aug. 15. Bedford, his wife and their three children will move to the area this summer.

"Chris Bedford is a rising star," said Clair Zamoiski Segal, who chairs the museum's board of trustees.

"When we met Chris, we were blown away by his intelligence, his vision and his commitment to building partnerships between the museum and the community. He had ideas about how to achieve our goals that we'd never thought about before."

Bedford is credited with restoring the credibility of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, which he has led for four years. The school was the center of an international dispute in 2009 after it proposed selling off its top-notch art collection to shore up its struggling finances.

In addition, Bedford was selected by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to commission the artist and works that will represent the U.S. at the 2017 Venice Biennale, an international art show. At the Biennale, Bedford will present an installation of new work by Mark Bradford, his close friend and arguably the hottest contemporary painter in America. Bedford will co-curate the exhibit with Katy Siegel, the Rose's curator at large.

The selection of Bradford and Bedford was reported in such publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe, which noted it as a triumph for the Rose, a relatively small museum with a 9,000-object collection and a budget of $1.8 million.

The Baltimore Museum of Art, in contrast, has holdings of 95,000 artworks and has a 2016-2017 budget of $13.5 million.

Bedford said he's been a fan of the BMA since he first borrowed works from the collection for exhibitions he's curated.

"The sheer quality of the collection is revelatory," he said, adding that walking through the galleries "works like a crescendo, but it feels like a crescendo that goes on and on without ending. Museums that feel expansive at the end of the journey are the most exciting."

Joel Wachs, president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which funded several exhibitions Bedford curated, said Bedford's appointment will bring the Baltimore museum worldwide attention.

"I think Chris will put the BMA on the map in terms of its contemporary programming," Wachs said. "The Baltimore Museum of Art is a wonderful institution. But I don't know that it's known nationally or even internationally the way it should be. Chris will help with that."

Bolger has never met Bedford, but she said she can't wait to see what he'll accomplish in Baltimore.

"I'm particularly impressed by his work with Mark Bradford," she said. "It bodes well for this city that Chris has an interest in living artists and artists with diverse backgrounds."

Bradford, who is African-American, was a 2009 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant and is known for working with youth in Los Angeles' foster care system.

Bolger added: "The kind of work that Chris Bedford has done indicates that he's interested in art that impacts the community."

Bedford, who was born in Scotland and raised in the U.S. and England, describes himself as "an accidental art historian."

When he enrolled at Oberlin College in the 1990s, he planned to study literature and swim competitively. Instead, he majored in art history and played football.

His life's goal changed, he said, when he walked into Oberlin's museum and came face to face with a masterpiece, a 17th-century painting by the Dutch artist Hendrick ter Brugghen of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian.

"It was a transformative experience," he said. "The figure glowed. It seemed completely and utterly present in the room. Even today, I could draw every detail of that painting with my own hand."

Bedford said he believes everyone should have that experience. One of his proudest achievements at the Rose, he said, was the creation of a new exhibition and performing space called the Rosebud, located in a formerly empty storefront in a transitional neighborhood of Waltham, Mass.

Half of the space is used to exhibit video art from the Rose's collection, and half is a space for live performances that include rap artists, theater and dance.

"It's been a resounding success," he said. "There's nothing like going into the Rosebud and seeing people who would never be in the Rose and who would never set foot on the university campus."

Bedford thinks that to succeed, museums need to commit equally to achieving worldwide stature and to becoming immersed in the community.

"To me, Rosebud and the Biennale are commensurate with the way museums should position themselves," he said. "A museum should be entirely and emphatically local while also being uncompromisingly international."

Wachs credited Bedford with restoring the Rose's standing in the museum world. When Bedford came to the Rose, the board of directors had dissolved, and the staff had dwindled to just three full-time employees.

"Chris got the Rose back on its feet and back on the map after a very, very difficult situation," Wachs said. "He is very persuasive and convincing when he speaks to you. He is quite good at collection-building and at getting people to work on behalf of the institution."

Before joining the Rose, Bedford was chief curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts in The Ohio State University. He also previously served as an assistant curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and as a consulting curator for California's J. Paul Getty Museum.

He earned a master's degree in art history in a joint program at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Bedford hesitated to discuss specifics of his plans for the Baltimore museum before starting the job and getting to know the staff, trustees and community. The most he'd venture is that he'd like to establish partnerships with such local colleges as the Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

"The word 'collaborative' needs to be used over and over and over again when you're talking about Chris," said Lisa Lynch, the interim president of Brandeis University.

"For Chris, collaboration is part of the creative process," Lynch said. "His vision and understanding of the way you can use art to extend dialogue and discussion on social issues has really been extraordinary.

"He is a hot star," Lynch said, "a high-energy, fun-loving force of nature."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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Correction

*A previous version of this story misquoted Bedford's description of his occupation. Bedford calls himself "an accidental art historian."

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