Chris Bedford is wrapping up his time in Baltimore quietly. He plans leave his job Friday as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art without so much as a whiff of controversy.
Low-keyed restraint hasn’t come naturally to Bedford, 45, during the previous six tumultuous years. But, there’s always a first time.
“There will be no parting bombshells,” he said. “This is a quiet and dignified exit.”
The museum’s board of directors has launched a nationwide search for Bedford’s successor.
Later this summer, Bedford begins his new gig leading the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which has a budget that’s roughly three times as large as the BMA’s. Bedford previously lived in California, his wife has family there, and Los Angeles is the home of the superstar artist Mark Bradford, with whom Bedford’s career has been intertwined.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an emotional cost to extricating himself from Charm City and from a museum that has become part of his identity.
“When I talk to my future colleagues in San Francisco, I am as of yet unable to say the word ‘we’” he said. “’We’ still means the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“You arrive in a place and you try to find a landing spot, and then you do, and you don’t always appreciate it until you leave. I am looking for ways to replicate that experience in San Francisco.”
The Baltimore Sun recently sat down with Bedford to conduct a version of an exit interview. He reflected on what has surprised him about Baltimore, his proudest moments and lingering regrets. (Spoiler alert: Bedford has no regrets.)
But first, he quashed a rumor that has been circulating among local art insiders: Bedford said he did not set the wheels in motion to obtain his new job as long ago as 2019, when the BMA mounted an exhibit of Black abstract art largely drawn from a collection owned by his longtime ally, Pamela Joyner.
Bedford curated the exhibit himself, an unusual undertaking for the director of a major museum. In 2021, Joyner, a SFMOMA trustee, became co-chair of the search committee charged with hiring a successor to outgoing director Neal Benezra. That successor is Bedford.
“It was pure coincidence,” Bedford said. “Most directors of major museums have been on the job for 20, 30 years. Neal has been the head of SFMOMA since 2002, and I sort of assumed he would go on.
“But this does attest to the value of building trusted relationships over time with people who share the same values that you hold.”
Bedford has always cultivated close connections with people above him on the art world totem pole (donors and collectors) and people below (curators and administrators.) During his career, he has tended to champion the same group of Black artists, (Bradford, Jack Whitten, Howardena Pindell) though he’s always on the lookout for new talent.
Some of Bedford’s former colleagues at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, which he headed before coming to Baltimore, now hold leadership roles at the BMA. Is he planning on enticing them to California?
“You’ll have to ask them,” he said. “But I do believe in working with the same people repeatedly.”
Since the first day that Bedford arrived at the BMA in 2016, he has seemed like a man in a hurry. In particular, he was in a hurry to transform the BMA into a museum that more closely resembled the majority-Black city in which it is located.
“I was very clear in my head that we were going to be building the plane as we were flying it,” he said.
Bedford had been on the job less than three months when the BMA announced that it would be the lead museum charged with putting together America’s entrance into the 2017 Venice Biennale, the so-called art world Olympics. It was the first time in more than half a century the BMA had been selected for this honor.
The artist tapped to represent the USA was Bradford, the first Black artist to fill that role since 2003. Bradford was followed in quick succession by two other Black artists: Martin Puryear in 2019 and Simone Leigh in 2022.
“Clearly Mark shattered the glass ceiling with his show,” Bedford said. “‘Tomorrow is Another Day’ was electrifying at the time and historically interesting in retrospect. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the two artists chosen to represent the USA after Mark are Black.”
Another highlight of Bedford’s tenure: commissioning the New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas in 2019 to transform the museum’s east entrance and two-story lobby into Baltimore’s living room.
During the two-year installation, which ended last month, the museum’s facade resembled the fronts of three Baltimore row houses fronted by the city’s ubiquitous and beloved stoops. Thomas decorated the lobby with ‘70s and ‘80s wallpaper and wildly patterned furniture. An overturned high-heeled shoe could be found on the carpet in front of a sofa, as if its owner had just kicked it off.
“Her installation completely changed the public perception of the museum and its perceived character,” Bedford said. “When John Russell Pope designed the original building, he said he thought of it as Baltimore’s front porch. We wanted to create today’s version of a gathering space where everyone is welcome.”
Many of Bedford’s initiatives were widely acclaimed. At other times, his plane-in-progress hit patches of turbulence.
In 2020, the museum was chastised by the influential Association of Art Museum Directors when it attempted to sell three modern masterpieces to raise $55 million for diversity initiatives. The BMA canceled the sale, and is now trying to raise that money through more conventional means.
“The drum that I’ve been beating for a long time is that there needs to be a symmetry of values between our creative programming and our internal policies,” Bedford said.
“It’s not enough to just hang a painting by artists of colors in our galleries. “We have to build the world that those artworks depict within the walls of our museum.”
In Baltimore, Bedford has been instrumental in launching the careers of such local artists as Stephen Towns, whose solo show ran at the BMA in 2018, and Jerrell Gibbs, who was selected to paint the portrait of the late Congressman Elijah Cummings that hangs in the U.S. Capitol.
“My show at the BMA was the first major platform I was offered in Baltimore,” Towns said earlier this year.
“I had been trying to get my work shown, and it took a very long time for me to do that. Chris helped to elevate my work and helped to elevate my status as an artist and open my work to collections nationally and internationally.”
Bedford said that when he first arrived in Baltimore, the quality of the art he saw was eye-opening.
“It is unusually good and unusually relevant,” he said. “That came as a surprise. And not only is the quality high, but the sociopolitical tone is pitch-perfect for this moment.”
If Baltimore has more creativity per square mile than other cities of its size, Bedford thinks that’s because this metropolis of eccentrics scoots over on its stoop to make room for other people who think outside the box.
“Baltimore is a place that expects you to be bold and brave and to make moves,” he said. “It isn’t afraid of making mistakes. I don’t know that you could say that about every city.”