In the Warhol gallery, Brenda Richardson meets her audience, 65 docents who have come to hear her wax eloquent about the Baltimore Museum of Art's bold and ambitious new wing.
She stands before them, her hair bristly short, her complexion a shade away from the white ash floors. A turquoise portrait of Liz Taylor stares back from the far wall like a friend.
"One of the things that's most important to understand is the unbelievable pressure I put on the staff," she says, her voice cracking unexpectedly with the words. "They've taken good care of this wing, this art and . . ."
Except for the screech of carpet tape being ripped from a spool nearby, the room is eerily quiet. People look away from her, gazing toward the paintings of artificial hearts and skulls and soup cans.
Brenda Richardson, Baltimore's iron maiden of art, dabs tears from her bloodshot eyes, battle-weary from the pressure of installing 157 works in six weeks, choked up about the 140 employees who helped make it happen.
In a creative world in which emotions flow freely, Ms. Richardson usually controls hers. After nearly 20 years at the BMA, she has a reputation as a powerful, passionate and autocratic deputy director and curator of modern painting and sculpture. Those images are likely to be reinforced by today's opening of the new wing for contemporary art.
No one picture -- but a gallery of impressions -- best defines her. There's the consummate professional, a perfectionist holed up in her gray office, driven by a love of art and a desire to share it. There's the arrogant micromanager, detractors say, who discounts local artists, whose personality hinders the BMA and whose decisions -- including buying 18 works by Andy Warhol -- aren't always in the best interest of Baltimore. Then there's Brenda the sister, daughter, godmother and friend, fiercely private about her life away from Art Museum Drive.
In the end, Ms. Richardson seems as enigmatic as the art she loves -- and best viewed, like the work, from a respectful distance.
"I spend my life looking at art: It's what I love to do and what I'm paid to do," says Ms. Richardson, 52. "It always sounds very banal, but the artists I've been fortunate enough to meet through my now 30-year-long career have enriched my life beyond measure. The works of art that I love and that move me teach me so much."
Art does more than teach her; it defines her, say colleagues in the field.
"If you put her in a canyon in the middle of the desert, she would be doing the same thing," says Antonio Homem, director of the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, who has known Ms. Richardson for 20 years. "Like birds who build nests through a kind of instinctive urge, she has a need to do this. . . . When people have strong beliefs and are devoted to them, what happens is they define themselves through their work. In her own way, Brenda is doing that."
Barely 15 minutes after the docent tour begins, things are growing unwieldy. Trying to assemble this many people in one space -- and silence them all -- is testing Ms. Richardson's already frazzled nerves.
She's reluctantly agreed to use the microphone, but by the time everyone reaches the Dan Flavin neon sculpture -- a ladder-like piece commissioned by the BMA for the corner where the new building meets the old -- the tour is one decibel away from mayhem.
"Do you think we should break up and wander?" she asks. "This isn't working very well."
There's a long pause, then a pleading voice from the back: "We all want to be with you."
In recent weeks, everyone has wanted to be with Ms. Richardson. Installation crews. Graphic artists. The media.
"I've been working on all aspects of the new wing from the beginning," she says. "It doesn't matter if it was a question of exterior materials, or the shape of the galleries, or the color of the walls, or where the electrical outlet went."
Even those who disagree with her cannot deny her dedication. Before planning for the wing began, her work habits were already legendary: the seven-day workweek, the 12-hour workday. During the last months, those days have stretched to 16 and 18 hours. She's existed on little sleep, dinners of Junior Mints, and sheer stamina. To fend off nightmares (both literal and figurative), she's kept a small notebook by her bed for concerns that come to her in the middle of the night.
"You will never get a half-hearted opinion or an inch-move away from absolute quality with Brenda," says Arnold Lehman, director of the BMA. "She is someone who is entirely committed to the field -- every bone, every tooth, every hair."
It took that level of commitment to pull this project together. Delays in construction meant the six months allotted for installation dwindled to six weeks. She was cheated out of what she needed most: contemplation time. The stress level was particularly high in the early weeks, since the flowing interior design meant art had to relate to other works, both near and far.
And nothing was hung until everything had a home -- at least in Ms. Richardson's mind.
'I can't do this'
"There were times when I slept very little," she says. "I would wake up at 4:30 and come in here and walk around the spaces, trying to sort out where I wanted things to go. Along about the third week, I just pretty much despaired. I thought, 'I can't do this. It won't go right.' "
But she persevered, resorting to a model for only one of 16 rooms -- the Warhol gallery. (The replica still sits in a corner of her office.)
Along the way, though, some pieces -- such as Eric Fischl's "The Empress of Sorrow," a verdant oil painting of a carousel horse, a villainous artist and a Kabuki-like figure -- were moved as many as seven times.
"It's a fabulous painting that gave me no end of trouble," she tells the docents. "It was so strong in color and content it looked absolutely perfect wherever it sat, but everything else around it looked terrible."
Artists are her most important audience, she says, and satisfying them is her greatest goal.
"I want them to feel pleased with their work, how it's shown here, how it's lighted, what its neighbors are," she says. "The artists are the people I do this for."
Mr. Fischl, who attended the BMA's recent gala for the new wing, says Ms. Richardson was uneasy about showing him where she had hung his work.
"She was like a little schoolgirl," he recalls. "She was very nervous. What do you do when you're nervous? You bow your head and avert your eyes. Then she was beaming when she saw that I appreciated what she had done."
Artist Nancy Graves, whose work is also in the wing, calls Ms. Richardson an artist's curator.
"Brenda's concern is for the artist. She's willing to take a risk for art. Other things are secondary," she says.
But what some see as a virtue, others call a vice. The quality that allows her to connect with artists also impedes her ability to understand average museum-goers, say some who have worked with her.
"Brenda is very knowledgeable and well-respected," says Joe Stewart, a former director of membership and annual giving for the BMA. "But she doesn't have the best sense of what's going on in the public's mind. A museum is a cloister. It's a warm, fuzzy, beautiful place filled with really smart people. There's a dangerous homogeny in that. If you're smart about some things, the leap you make is you're smart about all things. . . . It's hard for Brenda to really admit that she, like everyone, doesn't have a finger on the pulse of the American public."
Little in her background prepared Brenda Richardson for a life devoted to art.
The eldest of three daughters, she grew up in a small town outside Lansing, Mich. Her father worked for an adding machine company; her mother was a local politician.
She refuses to say much more about her youth and grows annoyed when asked how her parents reacted to her profession.
About her life away from the museum, she'll say this: She lives "five minutes away." She relaxes by reading, looking at art and going to flea markets. She loves dogs and cats, although she doesn't have either at the moment. She keeps a photograph of her goddaughter in her office -- a rare personal touch.
"I don't have secrets," she says, "but I'm a very private person."
She majored in English and French literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, getting her bachelor's degree in 1964. But an undergraduate course in art history changed her career path. She went on to receive her master's from the University of California, Berkeley, in art history two years later.
Before coming to Baltimore, she worked at Berkeley's University Art Museum as the assistant director. In 1975, she was hired by the BMA and unnerved some local artists from the start.
"She was kind of contemptuous of Baltimore," says Esta Maril, whose late husband, Herman Maril, served on the BMA's board and whose work has been shown there. "She was coming here from California to teach us something. That was my early feeling about her."
If she alienated some, she intrigued others, bringing in works and artists Baltimore had rarely seen before, including Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and a major show by Baltimore resident Grace Hartigan. Over the years, she and Mr. Lehman have been credited with building the contemporary (post-1945) collection, educating Baltimoreans about it and raising the BMA's profile nationally and internationally.
While she dislikes labels, Ms. Richardson has been associated with a genre of art that's considered minimalist and conceptualist -- often difficult, intellectual works such as Richard Artschwager's rubberized horsehair table or May Wilson's mummified dolls, which can leave casual observers perplexed.
"To me the work is far from minimalist," she says. "The work is unbelievably layered, rich, complex and storytelling."
Colleagues in the museum world see the art as the key to understanding Brenda Richardson.
'Rigor and resonance'
"Brenda's drawn to art that has rigor and resonance," says Ned Rifkin, director of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, who has known her for a dozen years. "It certainly corresponds to her sensibility, which may be called restrained and cerebral. But there's no question that there's range within that. She's not a one-note person."
In focusing on minimalist works, some believe Ms. Richardson has done a disservice to the museum -- creating too narrow a focus for an educational institution.
"I feel it's wrong for any regional museum to only try to feature one kind of art," Ms. Maril says. "I don't think it's to the benefit of Baltimore. She's very slanted toward the minimalist point of view and toward what's packaged in New York. I feel there's an arrogance toward any other point of view. It's as though Brenda knows best."
Ms. Richardson defends her decisions by saying that she's tried to build on the existing strengths of the collection, particularly given the museum's limited financial resources. She also believes others overestimate her importance.
"My critics think I have some extraordinary powers of control, which is impossible in a museum like this," she says. "There is no single person in control. It takes a base of support for things to happen. I don't snap my fingers and obtain a work of art."
As an example, she cites the acquisition of the 15 paintings and three drawings by Warhol earlier this year. The purchase -- along with 15 other Warhols already on loan to the museum -- gave the BMA the second-largest number of Warhol paintings of any museum.
But the endeavor was a 1 1/2 -year long process during which she answered to many museum constituencies. The final meeting, which lasted more than two hours, resulted in a unanimous vote of the executive committee to obtain the art, estimated at more than $1 million.
Yet it's not always her decisions -- but the way in which she makes them -- that makes others uneasy.
"She's arrogant, with cause," says Mr. Stewart, a former BMA employee. "In many regards, she knows herself and is sure of herself. . . . It's arrogance in the Greek sense of hubris, that full sense of mission that can cause you to overlook pedestrian things. She's dealing with stuff that's in the orbit of Saturn. Sometimes Earth seems a distant place."
When asked whether her personality has hindered the museum, she pauses before answering. "Museums, like all public institutions, are in the business of making friends," she says. "To the degree I've alienated anyone that would be a negative. But I would balance that with a tremendous number of friends I've made here."
The tour has ended with applause, and Ms. Richardson is taking one last look around the wing, moments before it will be judged by the press. An Agnes Martin painting, a subtle, mediative work called "Flowers in the Wind," arrived from Switzerland hours ago and was hung during the tour.
The Del Monte and Kellogg's boxes, which complete the Brillo box sculpture, are still to be arranged. It marks her final installation.
"You little devils," she says, speaking to them as she stacks the boxes, moves them forward on the platform and turns them at different angles.
"Trust me," she tells assistants nearby. "It's getting there."
Finally, the pieces of the artistic puzzle come together. She steps back. A four-eyed self-portrait of Andy Warhol peers over her shoulder. Buoyed by praise from the docents and her own confidence about a job well done, she puts her hands on her hips, cocks her head, and smiles.
Brenda Richardson is happy at last.