Mark Bradford talks about the expanding definition of what an artist is at the Venice Biennale. (AP, Baltimore Sun video)
Artist Mark Bradford and the Baltimore Museum of Art will launch an innovative program next year aimed at teaching low-income children creative and entrepreneurial skills needed to smash the cycle of poverty.
The multiyear partnership between the MacArthur Fellowship-winning artist, the museum and the Greenmount West Community Center will involve a weekly silk-screening workshop for youngsters aged 5 to 18, according to museum director Christopher Bedford. The kids will then work with the grassroots community organization Noisy Tenants to market the T-shirts, hats, jackets and other articles of clothing that they design and create. The program will debut at an undetermined date in 2018.
“Museums have historically seen their purview as delivering high culture to anybody willing to consume it,” Bedford said.
“Mark thinks that if you want to engage a child or teen population, you have to first deal with the fundamental challenges they face that take priority over the consumption of art. If someone is starving for lack of food, it would be irresponsible to foist art on that person.”
The initiative’s scope and ambition to use art to bring about social change is reminiscent of the OrchKids after-school program spearheaded by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop, who launched the organization in 2008 with $100,000 of her own funds. For the past decade, OrchKids has provided everything from free music lessons to tutoring and an after-school snack to an increasing number of low-income students.
“This is how you change a person's direction in life,” Bedford said. “This is how you find the next Mark Bradford. The next Mark Bradford probably lives in Baltimore right now, and it is our fundamental responsibility to find him or her.”
The artist Mark Bradford is roughing up the American Dream. He's excavated the dream, dug it up and examined its origins at the behest of the Baltimore Museum of Art, which is presenting the U.S. Pavilion at the world's most prestigious art fair, the 2017 Venice Biennale.
Bradford is the artist representing the U.S. through Nov. 26 at the 2017 Venice Biennale, often described as the “art world Olympics.” The circuitous path bringing the California-based painter to Baltimore began in Los Angeles in the mid 2000s. Bedford, then an assistant curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, visited the studio of the Abstract Expressionist painter and sculptor just before Bradford began his stratospheric rise in the art world.
What Bedford found amazed him. The two formed a close professional partnership that culminated after Bedford came to the BMA in 2016. He had recently been named Commissioner of the U.S. Pavilion at the Biennale, and he chose Bradford as America’s representative at the six-month, international festival.
A 6’8” gay African-American former hairdresser, Bradford creates art that gives voice to marginalized communities. He is known for launching social service programs in cities with major exhibitions of his art. In his native Los Angeles, Bradford created a nearly 20,000-square-foot community arts center that works with youths in foster care. In Venice, he set up a storefront where current and former inmates could sell the wares they made while imprisoned. In Baltimore, he is creating the silk-screening workshop for low-income kids.
The BMA is raising the funds necessary to cover what Bedford estimates will be a six-figure budget financing multiple years, and Bradford also is donating an undisclosed sum. The monies will be used to pay for everything from upgraded computers to silk-screening technology to fabric to a security system.
Bradford will travel to Baltimore frequently to teach the workshops and to meet with Greenmount’s staff. The artist has already visited the center three times, said Kisha L. Webster, president of the Greenmount West Community Association.
“This level of investment from someone like Mark who isn’t from our community but who sees our value will be transformative for us on multiple levels,” she said. “These are artistic children. They like to paint. They like to draw. Now, we’ll be able to help them take the designs they create and move them to the next level.”
Just as OrchKids began modestly and grew, expanding from 25 students enrolled at one elementary school to 1,000 attending six schools, according to the symphony’s website, Bedford hopes that the BMA’s initiative will expand over time.
In addition to the silk-screening workshop, plans are in the works for free art classes. Museum staffers will be encouraged to volunteer at the center and develop relationships with the boys and girls.
And, though the BMA is starting the workshop at a center located less than two miles south of the museum — practically in the institution’s shadow — Bedford hopes the program eventually will extend to centers in other Baltimore neighborhoods.
“It’s always been our intention for the art and community programs to become a replicable model,” Bedford said. “We will start intensively and small and move on.”
Bradford’s art will be coming to Baltimore, as well.
The exhibit he created for the Biennale titled “Tomorrow Is Another Day” will transfer to the BMA in September and will include a new work — a two-story “waterfall” that will be installed in the museum’s East Lobby.
Art lovers wanting a sneak preview can also visit Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where a massive new installation by Bradford called “Pickett’s Charge” opened last Wednesday and will remain on view for a year.
This week, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and by extension the city of Baltimore, will stride into the center of the art world's biggest and most prestigious stage. The spotlight will be bright, the pressure will be enormous and the stakes will be sky-high.