The Baltimore Museum of Art will celebrate 2020 by adopting a daring new policy designed to reverse the art world’s historic marginalization of female artists.
Museum director Christopher Bedford said Thursday that every artwork the BMA purchases for its permanent collection next year — every painting, every sculpture, every ceramic figurine — will have been created by a woman.
“You don’t just purchase one painting by a female artist of color and hang it on the wall next to a painting by Mark Rothko. To rectify centuries of imbalance, you have to do something radical.”— Christopher Bedford
In addition, each of the 22 exhibits on view will have a female-centric focus. Nineteen will showcase artworks exclusively by women and will include works by at least one transgender woman, Zackary Drucker, a Los Angeles-based artist and consultant for the Amazon original television series “Transparent.”
Two exhibitions will explore how male artists perceive women, and another will honor the visionary Adelyn Breeskin, who directed the BMA from 1942 to 1962.
“This how you raise awareness and shift the identity of an institution,” Bedford said. “You don’t just purchase one painting by a female artist of color and hang it on the wall next to a painting by Mark Rothko. To rectify centuries of imbalance, you have to do something radical.”
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Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment guaranteeing U.S. women the right to vote. More than a dozen local arts groups have prepared some sort of programming to celebrate that milestone, according to a survey conducted by the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.
What sets the BMA’s initiative apart, experts say, is the depth of its commitment, devoting an entire year to recognizing the contributions of female artists.
Biana Kovic, incoming executive director of the New York-based National Association of Women Artists, said she isn’t aware of any other general-purpose museum in the U.S. that has devoted so much time, gallery space and money to showcasing female visual artists.
“What the Baltimore museum is doing is so cool,” Kovic said. “We think all museums should do it. It’s particularly important that the BMA is creating a platform for woman artists to showcase their work, because that will inspire other women to make art. Even today, female artists are highly under-represented in museums. We have a lot of work still to do about educating the public on the importance of women in American art history.”
The BMA acquired its first work by a female artist — a painting by Sarah Miriam Peale — in 1916, just two years after the museum was founded. Nonetheless, just 4% of the 95,000 artworks in the permanent collection today were created by women.
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“We’re attempting to correct our own canon,” Bedford said. “We recognize the blind spots we have had in the past, and we are taking the initiative to do something about them."
Last year, Bedford’s decision to sell seven artworks in the museum’s collection by such modern masters as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Franz Kline to purchase paintings and sculptures by women and artists of color aroused an art world uproar. A letter to the editor in the Sun by David Maril, who father was an artist who served on the BMA’s board, described that decision as “horrendous.”
The museum sold five of the paintings for nearly $8 million and used some proceeds to buy works by such prominent contemporary artists as Mark Bradford and Amy Sherald.
The highlights of next year’s exhibition schedule likely will be a two ticketed shows: a selection of videos by the South African artist Candice Breitz that opens in March and touches upon such topics as the lives of immigrants and sex workers, and a retrospective of paintings by the renowned abstract expressionist artist Joan Mitchell that debuts in September.
But the exhibition schedule also includes such well-known Baltimore-based artists as Grace Hartigan, Betty Cooke and Jo Smail.
“This is the start of a much-needed change,” said Shan Wallace, an artist whose photographs and collages of Baltimore will be exhibited in a group show during the spring.
She said that it’s “absurd” that the BMA’s holdings include just 3,800 artworks created by 1,500 woman artists and designers when the museum is located in a city where 53% of the population is female.
“I think that what the BMA is doing will get other institutions to show more women artists," Wallace said. “I am glad that my hometown museum is embarking on something this important.”
Other local cultural groups celebrating women artists include Everyman Theatre, whose inaugural New Voices Festival will highlight the work of three female playwrights; Johns Hopkins University, which in May will host a major scholarly conference on women, gender and sexuality, and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, which is running an exhibit of the works of the late sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, including several works that celebrate motherhood.
Bedford said the BMA expects to spend up to $2 million next year to purchase art by female artists — and that’s just the beginning.
“This is a declaration of intent going forward of the kinds of exhibits we will have and the kind of acquisitions we will make," he said. "There can be no beginning and no end, just a consistency of effort in the right direction.”
This story has been updated to reflect that the BMA's policy on exclusively acquiring the works of female artists in 2020 refers only to purchases. Donations are not affected.