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Christopher Bedford resigns as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art

Christopher Bedford, the at-times controversial director of the Baltimore Museum of Art who brooked no opposition in his quest to use the institution to achieve social change, has resigned his post and is moving to California.

Bedford, 44, will become director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, an institution with roughly a third of the BMA’s 95,000 artworks, but more than twice its $20 million annual budget.

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The North Baltimore museum’s board of trustees was notified Wednesday that Bedford’s last day will be June 3. Trustees are expected to name an interim director and will conduct a “rigorous and expansive search” for Bedford’s successor, board chairwoman Clair Zamoiski Segal wrote in a letter to the BMA’s board of trustees, staff members and supporters.

In the six years that Bedford has guided Maryland’s largest museum, he has shaken it up from its basement to its eaves as he sought to transform the BMA into an institution that better reflects the majority population of the city in which it is located.

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“The BMA, our city and the entire art world owe Chris Bedford a debt of gratitude for his groundbreaking work to advance diversity, equity and community engagement,” the Rev. Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, wrote in an email. “It is our hope that the BMA leadership stays the course and builds on his work by honoring his contributions and hiring a like-minded successor.”

Many of Bedford’s initiatives made national headlines.

Some, such as the decision to buy only artworks created by women painters and sculptors during 2020, The Year of the Woman, were widely acclaimed. Others, such as an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to sell three modern masterworks to raise $55 million for diversity initiatives, caused a deep rift within Baltimore and brought an avalanche of negative publicity.

“I believe that the work that the board and staff of the Baltimore Museum of Art and I have done over the last six years has fundamentally changed the DNA of this institution,” Bedford said. “I have immense pride in what we have accomplished and a sadness that come June, I won’t be part of that anymore.”

While Bedford’s supporters viewed him as a warrior for social justice, his take-no-prisoners management style sometimes angered people on the opposite side of an issue.

Laurence Eisenstein is the Washington lawyer who spearheaded the opposition to the sale of the three artworks, a process known in museum circles as “deaccessioning.” Eisenstein once publicly called for Bedford to be ousted. On Wednesday, his tone was conciliatory.

“I wish Chris well and hope he is very successful in his new position at SFMOMA,” Eisenstein said. “I look forward to the BMA finding a new director who will move the institution forward and heal the divisions that remain from the deaccessioning process.”

Bedford was born in Scotland and has lived in England and South Africa. From the beginning, he said he didn’t expect to spend the rest of his career in Baltimore. When he was appointed, Bedford promised trustees that he would give the BMA at least five years; he departs after six.

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Perhaps because Bedford knew his time in Baltimore was limited, the former Oberlin College football nose tackle pursued his plans to transform the BMA with a single-minded determination and embarked upon what in museum terms was a blistering pace of change.

Less than three months into his new job, Bedford catapulted the BMA onto an international stage when it was selected to create the American pavilion in the 2017 Venice Biennale, often described as “the art world Olympics.” It was the first time since 1960 that the BMA had been chosen for that honor.

Other high-profile programs include a satellite museum at Lexington Market that combines galleries and an art-making space, and a partnership with the Greenmount West Community Center that teaches silk-screening skills for kids living in challenging circumstances and raises funds for the neighborhood organization located within a few miles of the BMA.

Kisha L. Webster, the community center’s founder, said that the BMA is one of the rare institutions that didn’t cut back on its commitment once the headlines went away.

For nearly three years, she said, Segal and the international art world superstar Mark Bradford have served on Greenmount West’s board of directors. Silk-screened clothing continues to be sold in a pop-up shop inside the BMA, and the two organizations frequently collaborate.

“I have grown because of this partnership and our center has grown,” Webster said. “I hope it will continue.”

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And in March, the BMA will open a new exhibit that’s already generating media buzz: “Guarding the Art,” a show curated by the museum’s security guards — a project conceived by trustee Amy Elias and chief BMA curator Asma Naeem. He also championed local artists of color, boosting the careers of such promising painters as Jerrell Gibbs and the mixed-media artist Stephen Towns.

“Chris brought a more diverse environment to the BMA,” Towns, 42, said. “He brought Baltimore artists of color into the museum and helped launch careers. He definitely did that for me.”

After Bedford arranged for Towns to have his first museum show at the BMA in 2018, he exhibited his work in Los Angeles and obtained representation from a New York gallery. His work is in the permanent collection of the BMA and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and has been sold to collectors in the U.S. and internationally.

“None of that would have happened without the BMA,” Towns said.

In San Francisco, Bedford will lead a museum with its own share of well-publicized struggles with diversity. A senior curator resigned in 2020 after his comments created a public uproar; he had stated that a museum policy of avoiding collecting artworks by white men amounts to “reverse discrimination.”

Bedford declined to comment on what plans, if any, he has for SFMOMA. But he said his new museum “holds dear two principles that are enormously important to me: a commitment to equity and excellence in its broadest definition. SFMOMA wants to continue to be known for leading the field in those areas, and that aspiration attracted me tremendously.”

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In a statement, the San Francisco museum’s search committee described Bedford as “a brave, empathic, inclusive and passionate leader,” adding: “He is at a point in his career that combines impressive achievements with an open mindset and the ability to listen, learn and evolve with and for our community.”

Segal, whose seven years as the BMA board chairwoman end in June, praised Bedford’s “courageous and inspired leadership” in her letter to museum supporters.

“It is through his leadership that we reinvigorated our mission in 2018 to transform the BMA into a museum that places diversity and equity alongside artistic excellence at its core and better reflects the community that it serves,” wrote Segal, who will be succeeded by James D. Thornton, who will become the BMA’s first Black board chairman.

While many of Bedford’s boldest projects have come to fruition, others remain works in progress.

After the sale of three artworks by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still and Brice Marden was called off two hours before they were scheduled to go under the gavel at Sotheby’s Auction House in New York in fall 2020, Bedford vowed to raise the $55 million the sale had been expected to generate and to use the funds for diversity and access programs, an initiative dubbed The Endowment for the Future.

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Bedford said that fundraising for this endowment is continuing, but declined to say how much money has been pledged so far. Nonetheless, he said that the museum “has made substantive progress” in most categories for which those funds were to have been earmarked:

The pay for security guards was bumped up from $13.50 an hour in the middle of the pandemic to $16 now. Bedford acknowledged that the figure falls short of his original target of $20 an hour, but said, “In the next five years, $20 an hour is achievable.”

The BMA will begin opening on Thursday nights in March to accommodate visitors who work during the day, and is tentatively planning to stop charging for special exhibitions in the fall of 2026, 20 years after eliminating its general admission fee.

“It isn’t enough to just hang paintings by artists of color in our galleries,” Bedford said. “We have to create the world depicted in those paintings. We have to embody those values of equity, access and inclusion inside the museum’s walls.”

Bedford said he’s not worried that a new director will have different priorities, and that the plans he set in motion will be abandoned once he leaves town.

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“I do not believe the pendulum is going to swing in the opposite direction,” he said. “Initially, the work the BMA was doing reflected my vision. That is emphatically no longer the case. In the past six years, the staff and board to a person have come together around a very deeply shared set of principles. The museum doesn’t need me to do that good work.”

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Segal said in her letter that she doesn’t expect the BMA to change course.

Trustees remain “committed to the equity goals that we have set forth, and this commitment does not change with Christopher’s departure,” her letter says.

Bedford knows that hiring a new director is the prerogative of the BMA’s board.

“I would hope they would consult me,” he said. “I do have some candidate ideas I would like to share.”

Are candidates of color on his list? Should the BMA’s next director be Black?

“The short answer,” Bedford said, “is emphatically ‘yes.’”


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