Chris Bedford and Mark Bradford are used to having people tangle up their last names, which contain nearly all the same letters in roughly the same order.
Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, can only claim his “e” for his exclusive use, while the superstar artist Bradford retains sole possession of just his “a.” What’s worse, both have one-syllable first names containing a “k” sound.
“Mark Bedford,” people sometimes say, or “Chris Bradford.”
Art historians might as well get used to the linguistic confusion. Both names may well come up in future discussions of 21st-century American art. They may even crop up in the same sentence.
For the past dozen years, the careers of Bradford, a 6-foot-8-inch African-American former hairdresser, and Bedford, the 6-foot-2-inch Scottish-born former Oberlin College nose tackle, have been intertwined to an unusual degree. As one of the two close friends has risen in his chosen profession, so has the other.
Their partnership has ramifications for art museums internationally that are struggling to figure out how to tell a comprehensive history not restricted to white male artists. And it has already begun to change Baltimore in the two years since Bedford took the helm of the state’s largest art museum.
“Mark and I have had an unusually enduring personal and professional relationship,” Bedford said. “If I’d never met Mark, I hope I’d still have had an impactful career that combines contemporary art with activism. But, I would have had a different career. Mark’s thinking has been talismanic for me.”
The 41-year-old Bedford is described by his peers as a rising star in museum circles whose name tends to come up when openings arise at major museums. (He says he’s not looking to leave Baltimore.)
The 56-year-old Bradford is a bonafide supernova known for his large, Abstract Expressionist mixed-media collages. Earlier this year, a canvas he painted in 2007 sold for a record-setting $12 million.
Almost everything superficial about the two men differs: physical appearances, backgrounds and skill sets. But much of what propels them internally — values, goals and a formidable drive — is the same. Both are determined to use art and museums to bring about social change.
One example: The pair’s collaboration with the Greenmount West Community Center was inspired by social welfare projects that Bradford launched in his hometown of Los Angeles and in Italy.
In Baltimore, the MacArthur Award-winning artist and the museum have launched an ambitious plan to teach 40 low-income children creative and entrepreneurship skills to help them escape poverty. Bradford has committed his own funds and three years to establishing a silk-screening workshop at the community center; the museum’s involvement will likely continue much longer.
Other curators and art historians have had long, fruitful relationships with individual artists that have had an impact on art history. For instance, in the 1940s the critic Clement Greenberg trumpeted the talents of the then-obscure Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock.
But it may be unprecedented for a museum director to take an artist’s ideas, expand upon them and make them the basis for devising programs aimed at curing society’s problems.
“People often ask me what models I’m using to create my vision for the BMA,” Bedford said. “I don’t look at what other institutions are doing. I look at what Mark has done in his social practice and try to scale it up to an institutional level.”
Their friendship has already brought the Baltimore museum international cachet. The BMA was selected as the lead institution charged with putting together America’s entry in the 2017 Venice Biennale, often called the “art world Olympics.”
It’s highly unlikely that the BMA would have received that honor had Bedford not just been appointed the museum’s director or had he not pressured his friend into applying to represent the U.S. in the six-month international competition. (Bradford’s exhibit for the Biennale, “Tomorrow Is Another Day," runs at the BMA through March 3.)
“The first time Chris brought it up, I basically pretended I didn’t hear it,” Bradford said.
“He stopped talking about it for a while and I thought he’d forgotten about it. Then eight months later, he said, ‘We really have to start working on our proposal.’ I was like, ‘Oh man, he’s not going to let it go.’”
When the two men met in the mid 2000s, Bedford was an assistant curator and Bradford was working in his mother’s hair salon.
“Chris said right away that what I was doing was important and relevant,” Bradford said. “That was huge. Especially in the beginning, you need people who believe in your work.”
It was Bedford who in 2010 organized the first retrospective exhibit of Bradford’s art and predicted — correctly — that the show would go on tour.
“It was extremely rare at the time for a black artist to receive a major survey exhibition that stopped off in five or six cities,” Bedford said. “Mark didn’t think I could deliver.”
The artist’s fears proved to be unfounded; Bedford is a force to be reckoned with.
The son of a Motorola executive, he spent part of his childhood in South Africa when racial discrimination was at an extreme, an experience he suspects was instrumental in developing his fierce commitment to civil rights.
When Bedford believes in someone, he believes in him or her utterly and fully expects the excellence he perceives to be apparent to the rest of the world. Despite his abstract and intellectual conversational style, his skin flushes readily with emotion, allowing observers to experience him as relatable. The strength of Bedford’s convictions makes him a formidable rainmaker who raises funds for museum projects seemingly by snapping his fingers.
The California art collector Pamela J. Joyner laughs a bit ruefully when recalling the museum director’s powers of persuasion.
“As someone who has had her arm twisted by Chris,” she said, “let me tell you — he’s good.”
Bradford is as intense as his friend, but comes across as cooler to the touch. Perhaps that results from his great height, which he emphasizes by dressing in monochromatic all-white or all-black. He grew up in a rough neighborhood in south Los Angeles and came late to his chosen career, enrolling in art school when he was 30.
When Bradford converses with another person while standing, he must bend his 80-inch frame forward at a steep angle, throwing him off balance and keeping him at a physical distance. He is an elegant dragonfly of a man who seemingly has been blessed with vision that sees every facet of an object simultaneously.
As serious as both men are, they also share a silly side. For example, both are balding. One standing joke involves a fantasy of waking up one day with magically full heads of hair.
“We talk about what we’d do if we had an endless supply,” Bedford said, “how we might handle it sculpturally.”
So close are the two that Bedford remarked at a gala dinner at the 2017 Venice Biennale that his art historian wife, Jennifer, jokes that she comes in second to Bradford in her husband’s affections.
“Mark likes to say that we work so well together because everyone stays in their lane,” said Katy Siegel, the exhibit co-curator, who in many ways is a third member of a triad.
“Mark is the most important person because he makes the art. Chris is the muscle, the person who makes things happen. And I’m the historian who helps Mark with his research.”
Because the discussions between Bradford and Siegel affect how the paintings develop, they have ramifications for museums and collectors now clamoring for anything the artist creates. (Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum recently announced that Bradford’s monumental installation, “Pickett’s Charge,” which was originally scheduled to close next month, has been extended through 2021 after the artwork attracted more than 700,000 visitors during its first year.)
“What curators can do is to give historical and formal context to something that I’m mining in a very myopic vein,” Bradford said. “When I’m in the studio, all I’m thinking about is how far I can push a particular painting before it breaks. I try to push it to the point where it’s still breathing but about to asphyxiate. I’d rather kill a painting because I’m going after something rather than not go far enough.”
Bradford’s social welfare projects are as important to him as paintings. In California he established a 20,000-square-foot community arts center that works with youths in foster care, while in Venice he set up a storefront that sells wares made by prison inmates.
Since Bedford is responsible for setting the agenda of the BMA, his discussions with Bradford have public policy ramifications for Baltimore.
As Siegel put it: “It’s unusual to have a relationship that’s so close that the artist’s way of being in the world becomes a model for transforming a public institution. It’s unusual for an encyclopedic museum like the Baltimore Museum of Art to try to reorient itself from top to bottom to better reflect the black majority population of the city in which it’s located.”
For Bedford, the most formally inventive, socially pertinent art today is being made by African-Americans. He’s said he’d be hard-pressed to think of an area of popular culture that isn’t dominated by black musicians, painters and writers. For him, the BMA has to reconfigure itself structurally to reflect that reality — and sooner rather than later.
The initiatives Bedford has taken so far aren’t particularly radical when viewed singly. Earlier this year, the BMA arranged to auction off seven artworks by modern masters Andy Warhol, Franz Kline and others to free funds to buy paintings and sculptures by women and artists of color. (Five of the artworks fetched a hammer price of nearly $8 million.) So have other museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
The BMA launched Greenmount West; other museums have community outreach programs to which they are deeply committed.
What’s different about the changes at the Baltimore museum isn’t so much the individual puzzle pieces as the pattern they’re making as they fit together. Other museums tend to view their social welfare programs as one aspect of how they serve the public. For Bedford, Greenmount West is central to the BMA’s reason for being.
Traditionalists need not be alarmed. Bedford isn’t going to sell off the Cone Collection of masterpieces by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas. Nor is he going to tear down the museum’s elegant, 1929 neoclassical marble facade.
Nonetheless, the changes Bedford is planning are sweeping and fundamental. They go to the core of how the BMA defines itself and its mission, the role it sees itself playing in Baltimore and the world.
“These are the very first steps,” Bedford said. “We’re just getting started.”