Two years ago, the Baltimore Museum of Art took a $16.1 million gamble. And then curators went on a shopping spree.
Highlights from their leap of faith are on view in the new exhibit, “Now Is the Time: Recent Acquisitions to the Contemporary Collection” on view through July 18.
The exhibit includes 26 works by women and artists of color that curators are confident will be tomorrow’s superstars, the relatively unknown painters and sculptors whose works will in the future command big bucks.
“One hundred or 200 years from now, works that we bought for very little money and that are on view in these galleries will be acknowledged as unquestioned masterpieces,” BMA director Christopher Bedford said during a recent media preview.
“Now Is the Time” continues an argument that Bedford has been having with his critics about race, economics and great art. The exhibit’s title echoes a 1963 speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who declared that “now is the time” to build a racially and economically just America.
Last fall, when the BMA tried to raise $65 million for diversity initiatives by selling three high-profile paintings, the backlash from local art lovers and museum professionals made national headlines. An auction at Sotheby’s was called off just hours before two works were scheduled to go under the gavel.
With this new show, Bedford is taking his case to the public.
The works on view in “Now Is the Time” are among the 125 paintings and sculptures created by 85 artists that were purchased with funds from an earlier — and less controversial — “deaccessioning,” the term museums use when they sell their artworks. In 2018, the BMA disposed of seven paintings by modern masters Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline and others for $16.1 million.
“This is a show about the economics of the marketplace. The disparity in price between the seven works sold and the 125 acquired speaks to ongoing racism and sexism as reflected in the art market’s diminished valuation of works by women and artists of color,” said Bedford.
The exhibit is a conscious attempt to reshape that marketplace. When a museum puts the work of contemporary artists on view, it’s a declaration that these are the painters and sculptors who deserve a place in art history. It motivates collectors to take a second look. Prices for works by these artists often skyrocket.
“The right to judge which artists belong in the canon is an exercise in social power,” Bedford said. “The canonical history of art has always been controlled by the white elite.”
Below are five new works by artists of color that curators believe will engage viewers now — and might even stand the test of time.