After less than three months in his new job, Baltimore Museum of Art director Christopher Bedford is about to put the museum into the international spotlight.
The museum announced Thursday that it would be the lead institution charged with putting together America's entry into the 2017 Venice Biennale — considered the world's most influential art show. Over time, the impact from that event is expected to be felt in Baltimore.
"The Venice Biennale is the oldest and most prestigious international art exhibit in the world," Bedford said.
"It is often referred to as 'the Olympics of the art world.' To represent the U.S. in Venice is a tremendous honor. To us, this is no different than Michael Phelps swimming for the U.S. in Rio de Janeiro. And the eventual beneficiaries are going to be the Baltimore artgoing public."
The BMA will work with two other organizations (the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University and the U.S. State Department) to present the works of Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford, which will be on view in Venice from May 13 to Nov. 26 next year.
In addition, the U.S. exhibit is expected to travel to the Baltimore museum in the spring of 2018.
A few weeks before Bedford was appointed as director of the Baltimore museum, he was selected to organize America's entry into the competition in Europe. What's new in Thursday's announcement is that the Baltimore Museum of Art will be take on an expanded role.
The BMA staff will be responsible for all aspects of the U.S. Pavilion, including curating the exhibit, shipping and crating the art, insuring the works and preparing the book that will accompany the show. Much of the cost of organizing a show overseas, Bedford said, will be covered by a grant from the State Department.
"Without question, this is the greatest honor accorded in the contemporary art world," Bedford said. "This is so prestigious, so deeply and totally global that it instantly plants the BMA in the international spotlight."
Costas Grimaldis, owner of C. Grimaldis Gallery, said that the commission is "a feather in Baltimore's cap" — but only if the exhibit ultimately is a success. (The Mount Vernon gallery is one of Baltimore's premier showcases of contemporary art; its client list includes artists with national and international reputations.)
"It's a great honor," he said. "It's something that the whole world looks at every two years."
The U.S. Pavilion, he said, is housed in a beautiful — but potentially problematic — old Neoclassical building. The advantage is that it's one of the first buildings that visitors see when they walk into the Biennale. The challenge, he said, is "the way it's divided; it's a difficult space for an artist to work with."
Historically, the U.S. Pavilion has been among the most important and visible exhibition spaces at the Biennale, which runs in odd-numbered years. During the 56th Biennale presented in 2015, 53 countries competed for the coveted "Golden Lions."
The top prize for 2015 was won by Armenia; the U.S. exhibit showcasing the works of Joan Jonas was singled out by the jury for special notice. That year, about 500,000 visitors flocked to the show over seven months. In addition, 670 members of the news media visited the U.S. Pavilion.
The last time the Baltimore Museum of Art led America's exhibit in the festival was in 1960, when it presented the works of four pivotal Abstract Expressionist artists: Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Philip Guston and Theodore Roszak.
The Baltimore artist Joyce J. Scott, who won a 2016 MacArthur "genius" fellowship, took part in a collateral exhibition at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
"For the BMA to have anything to do with the Venice Biennale is enormous," she said. "It does so much for the credibility and gravitas of the institution and the artists it presents."
Bedford noted that Bradford's installation will be just the third time since the Biennale began in 1895 that the U.S. has showcased an African-American artist. The U.S. was represented by Robert Colescott in 1997 and by Fred Wilson in 2003.
"Mark is one of the greatest artists — and certainly the greatest American painter — of his generation," Bedford said. "He is at the peak of his powers."
Bradford's installation will include two components, the first rooted in the art world and the second in activism. The artist is at work creating about a half-dozen new paintings and several sculptures and videos.
In addition, he will champion products created by the inmates of two Italian prisons. The inmates of a women's prison, Bedford said, raise vegetables that are sold in Venice's markets and manufacture cosmetics that are sold in the city's hotels. Inmates of a male prison recycle banners and make them into tote bags and purses.
As part of his presentation, Bradford is renting out several storefronts in Venice where the prisoners' products will be sold, and he is working with an architect to design those spaces. Eventually, Bedford said, some of the inmates' wares could end up in museum shops — including at the BMA.
He hinted that the artist could undertake a similar project when his work comes to Baltimore in the spring of 2018.
"The way Mark organizes his life in Los Angeles is between his studio on one hand and his social activism on the other," Bedford said. "He'll be doing something very similar in Venice. Our view is that art isn't the Temple on the Mount. It's an opportunity for public engagement."
Scott predicted that the exhibit at the BMA in 2018 will draw tourist dollars. Art lovers from other cities unable to travel to Italy next year might opt instead to make a less costly visit to Baltimore to check out Bradford's presentation, she said.
Baltimore could also benefit in an even more immediate and tangible way. It's not unusual for artists represented in the Venice Biennale to make gifts to their presenting museums. For example, the BMA owns three paintings that spokeswoman Anne Brown said were "likely given to the BMA" as a result of the 1960 Biennale: Hofmann's "Summer Night's Bliss," created in 1961; Kline's "Untitled" from 1958; and Guston's "The Oracle" from 1974.
Thursday's announcement also presents a clear indication of the direction in which Bedford hopes to steer the BMA.
His ideal museum will champion contemporary, avant-garde art. It will have a strong international presence. It will be known for museum-based social activism that benefits the local community.
"This is the moment I have been working toward for my entire career," Bedford said. "The 2017 Venice Biennale has the potential to be transformative for Baltimore."