Asma Naeem, a Pakistan-born, former New York prosecutor turned museum curator, was named Tuesday as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art — the first person of color to lead the institution in its 109-year history.
The board of trustees voted Tuesday to confirm Naeem’s appointment heading Maryland’s second-largest cultural organization. She begins her new position Feb. 1.
“The Baltimore Museum of Art is one of the boldest, bravest museums in the world,” said Naeem, who is 53 and lives in Howard County. “We have begun an incredible dialogue with our community partners about the role a museum should play in an urban environment. That is a conversation I intend to continue.”
The board’s decision comes after a 10-month international search involving more than 200 applicants from the U.S. and Europe. The group was narrowed down to 20 semifinalists that included several candidates of color, according to board member Darius Graham, who chaired the search committee with trustee Clair Zamoiski Segal.
Naeem’s selection signals the board’s renewed commitment to the diversity efforts spearheaded most recently by former director Christopher Bedford, who departed Baltimore in June for San Francisco following six eventful and occasionally tumultuous years.
It was Bedford who in 2018 hired Naeem from the National Portrait Gallery, where she headed the department of prints and drawings, and installed her as the BMA’s chief curator.
“We see Asma’s appointment as an upward trajectory of the work we’ve been doing,” board chairman Jim Thornton said. “We believe that we can rise to even greater heights and become a model for museums nationwide.”
Tuesday’s announcement also means that for perhaps the first time in the history of majority-Black Baltimore, many of the city’s most prestigious arts institutions are being guided by people of color.
They include the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (music director designate Jonathon Heyward); Baltimore Center Stage (artistic director Stephanie Ybarra, departing in April and turning over the job to interim artistic director Ken-Matt Martin); the American Visionary Art Museum (director Jenenne Whitfield); the Creative Alliance (executive director Gregory S. Smith), the Maryland Film Festival (executive director Sandra Gibson) and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture (executive director Terri Lee Freeman.)
And now, the BMA.
“It was clear that Asma was the best candidate,” Thornton said. “She just happens to be a person of color.”
The board’s decision was praised by Amy Raehse, a partner at Goya Contemporary Gallery, which is planning two projects with the BMA next year.
“The board and selection committee found the right candidate for our city and our institution,” Raehse said. “Asma has been running the BMA successfully for the past seven months and is positioned to begin the museum’s next chapter.”
Thornton said that Naeem’s multifaceted background, which includes not just her ethnicity and gender but the religion in which she was raised and unconventional work history, is a plus. It makes her extra-aware of the concerns of stakeholders from customers to staff members.
“Diversity is so important,” he said. “Their lived experiences are different and that adds value to the decision-making process.”
From prosecutor to curator
Naeem is the daughter of a nuclear physicist and a physician who grew up in modest circumstances in India and Pakistan but used education to advance. The family relocated to the U.S. in 1971 when Naeem was 2 and settled in Towson, which she describes as “wonderful and welcoming.” Nonetheless, her childhood wasn’t immune from the ethnic slurs experienced by many people of color.
“People would make fun of my name,” she said, “or tell me to go back home to my country. There was continued Islamophobia.”
Though from her earliest days Naeem had been in her words “smitten with beauty,” she perhaps unconsciously absorbed the lesson that there were three acceptable career paths for gifted Pakistani teens: medicine, engineering and law.
She chose the latter, and after graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in art history and political science, she enrolled in Philadelphia’s Temple University, earning a law degree in 1995.
“I like working with people,” she said, noting that in college, she tutored students from the Baltimore City Public Schools. “I try to build relationships and offer solutions to those in pain.”
But during Naeem’s four years as a prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, solutions often were in short supply.
Naeem still tears up when discussing one sexual assault case she prosecuted: A 17-year-old boy was a straight-A student until he was raped by an uncle, resulting in his hospitalization on a psychiatric ward. After the teen was released, he went on a crime spree and eventually stood trial for armed robbery.
“I realized there was very little I could do to help that young man,” Naeem said.
After moving from New York to Washington, she worked for the District of Columbia’s bar association investigating professional misconduct cases. One day, she spontaneously enrolled in a night art history class at American University.
“As soon as the lights went off, I was hooked,” she said. “It was like I was trying to drink up the ocean. Suddenly, the whole world was before me. I realized that making a career in museums was the way I could build relationships and work for the greater good.”
She earned her master’s degree in art history from American University in 2003 during a period when she also was the mother of a toddler (Gabriel, now 21) and was pregnant with twin daughters (Dahlia and Zahra, now 18). She received a doctorate in art history from the University of Maryland in 2011, and three years later, joined the National Portrait Gallery full-time.
In 2018, Bedford lured Naeem to Baltimore and named her the museum’s chief curator, a role in which she was responsible for executing her boss’ vision.
‘A team player’
During Bedford’s six-year tenure, the BMA was rarely out of the national spotlight for long. Sometimes, the publicity was positive, as when the museum committed to purchasing only artworks created by women or that had a female-centric theme for all of 2020.
Other times, Bedford and the BMA were pilloried. In the fall of 2020, trustees announced plans to sell three masterpieces from the collection at auction to raise $65 million for diversity initiatives. Naeem co-authored a letter to the editor in The Baltimore Sun defending the plan, but the museum ultimately was forced to call off the sale.
Naeem’s supporters say she is as committed to equity as her former boss. But where Bedford could be fiery and occasionally confrontational, she is soft-spoken and diplomatic, in Thornton’s words, “a team player.”
Bedford, reached through a spokeswoman at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where he is now director, was tied up in meetings Tuesday and unavailable for comment.
Naeem was instrumental in planning “Guarding the Art,” one of the BMA’s most high-profile recent exhibits, which showcased the favorite artworks of BMA security guards. The show not only generated national buzz, but other museums across the U.S. are now planning to mount their own versions.
Former BMA trustee Amy Elias came up with the idea for “Guarding the Art” following a brainstorming dinner with Naeem. As chief curator, Naeem was responsible for making the plan work, from recruiting guest curator Lowery Stokes Sims to providing financial stipends to the guards.
“This appointment is brilliant on so many levels,” Elias said. “Asma is smart, she’s sensitive, she’s a convener and she has an amazing capacity for emotional intelligence. That’s not a quality everyone has, and it’s crucial to being an effective leader.”
And it was Naeem who came up with the idea for an innovative exhibit opening in April exploring the relationship between hip-hop and contemporary art in the 21st century, from streetwear to technology. The exhibit is being co-organized with the Saint Louis Art Museum, and Naeem is one of four co-curators.
Naeem said she hopes to forge similar connections in the future between the BMA and local cultural groups and schools dedicated to causes as different as classical music and climate change.
“I want to decenter the museum,” Naeem said. “I want to link arms with community organizations and march together. I believe in collaboration, in collective wisdom. We’re not the only people doing this important work.”