Four museum experts contacted by The Baltimore Sun said that King-Hammond's triple role as board president, curator and exhibiting artist was practically guaranteed to raise questions.
"It strikes me as a conflict of interest," says Holly Witchey, a former museum curator who teaches museum ethics at the Johns Hopkins University. "Caesar's wife should be above suspicion."
There's no debate that "Celestial Praise House for Seneca Village" — an homage to the African-American village razed in 1856 to build New York's Central Park — is of a high caliber and speaks to the show's theme. Holland Cotter, the Pulitzer-winning critic for The New York Times, called the piece "a magical theater-altar."
But, controversy has erupted in other instances of curators selecting their own works, from superstar neo-pop artist Jeff Koons in a 2009 show at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art to an exhibit this month at Massachusetts' New Bedford Art Museum and University Gallery.
King-Hammond says she initially was reluctant to include "Seneca Village."
"As a curator, I always have problems with exhibits that seem to include elements of narcissism and self-interest," she says. "But my partner is also invested in this. It didn't seem fair to him or to the legacy of Seneca Village not to have the piece here."
A. Skipp Sanders, the Lewis' executive director, told The Sun that the museum received the go-ahead last summer from the Maryland State Ethics Commission to import "Ashe to Amen" from New York's Museum of Biblical Art.
However, Sanders didn't respond to a request to provide a copy of the commission's opinion, and a commission spokesman said such documents generally aren't public.
The experts contacted by The Sun also agreed that sometimes there are valid reasons to bend the rules.
The American Alliance of Museums' ethics code cautions curators to avoid conflicts of interest or even the appearance of a conflict, but it "doesn't say that conflicts of interest can never happen," says Elizabeth Merritt, who directs the Alliance's Center for the Future of Museums.
"But you have to think out ahead what the issues are and write out a policy in advance. A policy might stipulate that the interested parties withdraw from the decision-making process. A museum might exercise extra vigilance or public disclosure of the conflict. Or, the museum might decide to decline the loan."
If you go
"Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery" runs through Sept. 29 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt St. Admission: $6 to $8; children aged 6 and younger admitted free. Call 443-264-1800 or visit rflewismuseum.org