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Baltimore Museum of Art to add new artwork, curator fellowship thanks to third largest donation in its history

The Baltimore Museum of Art announced Friday that it will receive the third-largest donation in the institution’s history, aimed at bringing more minority artists, curators and visitors of color to Maryland’s largest museum.

The gift from Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker will be between $3 million and $5 million. It will pay for an eye-catching, publicly accessible artwork in the museum’s vast East Lobby that will change every two years and will provide a fellowship to train a promising young curator.

The first artist commissioned to fill the vast, two-story lobby is the New York-based painter, photographer and filmmaker Mickalene Thomas. She’s best known for creating larger-than-life portraits of African-American women that are exuberantly encrusted with rhinestones and that as one critic has noted, intentionally border on bad taste.

The 47-year-old Thomas has had several high-profile solo shows. Her work is part of the permanent collections of major museums in Washington, New York and Chicago. The BMA owns two of her artworks — a 2008 print and a 2010 photograph.

Though Baltimore’s population is nearly two-thirds black, just 13 percent of museum visitors in 2015 were African-American. Thomas said in a news release that she hopes to boost those percentages by celebrating the beauty, sexuality and power of women resembling ordinary Baltimoreans.

“My hope is to represent, engage and bring visibility to Baltimore’s African-American community,” she said. “We will occupy the museum as our home by bringing the diversity that’s needed to fill these spaces.”

At the request of the donors, the BMA is not revealing the exact amount of their gift, and Meyerhoff and Becker declined to comment. The largest cash present to the institution was the $10 million given in 2007 by philanthropist Dorothy McIlvain Scott. The second-largest gift, $5 million, was donated anonymously later that year.

In the past, Meyerhoff and Becker have funded several initiatives aimed at providing opportunities for talented young artists and scientists from minority populations. In 1988, Meyerhoff and his late wife, Jane, established the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Baltimore, Maryland County; the college now is the leading producer of black graduates who enroll in M.D. and Ph.D. programs, according to a university press release. Meyerhoff and Becker also have made made major donations to such programs as the Peabody Institute Diversity Fund and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program. Previously, Meyerhoff and Becker donated $1.5 million to the BMA for the renovation of the Contemporary Wing, which reopened to the public in 2012.

In addition to commissioning the artwork, the couple’s newest donation will establish a year-long curatorial fellowship accompanied by a $40,000 stipend.

“Bob and Rheda’s visionary act of generosity has ensured that the world’s most important contemporary artists will make new, adventurous work for the city of Baltimore,” museum director Christopher Bedford said in the release, “while also providing for a permanent fellowship designed to change the pathway into museum leadership for the 21st century. No gift could carry greater significance for the future of this institution.”

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