Brenda L. Richardson, former longtime deputy director and chief curator of the Baltimore Museum of Art, dies

Brenda L. Richardson, former longtime deputy director and chief curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art whose tenure was marked by both controversy and success, and who later became an independent arts writer and curator, died of Alzheimer’s disease Saturday at the Springwell Retirement Community in Mount Washington. The former Bellona-Gittings neighborhood resident was 79.

“Brenda was an incredible force intellectually and artistically,” said Arnold L. Lehman, who was BMA director from 1979 to 1997.


“She had been a colleague of my predecessor, Tom L. Freudenheim, at Berkeley, and I knew her work, and there was no one more diligent when it came to curating modern art,” Mr. Lehman said. “She was my deputy director and curator, and we worked very closely during my 18 years in Baltimore. It was an extraordinary partnership.”

Constance R. “Connie” Caplan is a former longtime BMA trustee and is now a trustee emeritus.


“Brenda and I had our ups and downs, but in the end, no one did more as a curator for the BMA than Brenda, who was the best curator we ever had,” Ms. Caplan said. “American art was her forte and she clearly knew how to pick great paintings, even though we didn’t always have the money to purchase them. She was just first-rate and very, very special, and her death is a real loss.”

John Waters, filmmaker and author, said: “Brenda was a most brilliant woman who taught me about modern art. Her tastes were well defined, and she was my mentor and a huge influence.”

“She gave me a retrospective at the BMA, and The Sun wrote an editorial calling me ‘The Prince of Puke,’ and saying that it was the right thing to have done. When Arnold Lehman was BMA director and Brenda was there, the museum was on the national map,” he said.

Mr. Waters added: “She was a dear friend and a huge influence on me.”

Melanie F. Harwood, is the BMA’s senior registrar.

“Brenda was the most intellectually and emotionally intelligent person I’ve ever known,” Ms. Harwood wrote in an email to museum staffers announcing Ms. Richardson’s death.

“Her catalog prose is clear and readable and her memos legendary — sometimes two pages, single-spaced and always unambiguous,” she wrote. “She was devoted to the museum — and in particular to the Cone Collection — to artists, and to the people who worked with her.”


Brenda Lee Richardson, daughter of Robert Richardson, a Burroughs Corp. tool and die maker, and his wife, Helen Richardson, a township clerk, was born in Howell, Michigan, where she lived until she was 12 when her family moved to Plymouth, Michigan.

After graduating from Plymouth High School in 1960 where she was class valedictorian, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1964 from the University of Michigan, and a master’s degree in 1966 in art history from the University of California, Berkeley.

From 1964 to 1975, Ms. Richardson held a variety of positions at what is now the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, which is on the campus of the UC Berkeley campus. There, she worked under director Mr. Freudenheim, who later brought her to the BMA.

Ms. Richardson had been a research assistant and exhibition assistant, assistant and associate curator and curator of exhibitions, and from 1972 to 1975, was assistant director/curatorial.

In 1975, she came to Baltimore as curator of painting and sculpture at the BMA, a position she held for two years, when she was named deputy director for art and curator of modern painting and sculpture.

“I had to persuade her to become deputy director because she was so devoted to her curatorial work,” Mr. Lehman said.


For 23 years, one of Ms. Richardson’s major responsibilities was curating the fabled Cone Collection, and she was also the author of “Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta: The Cone Collection.”

Ms. Richardson drew controversy as part of a reinstallation in 1986 when she had the traditional gilt frames of the Matisse paintings in the Cone Collection removed and replaced with metal strips. Some said they made the paintings look like postage stamps.

The public outcry was so great that she put a brochure in the Matisse gallery defending the strip frames as keeping with “Matisse’s radical modernity,” Sun art critic John Dorsey reported in a 1998 article.

“I think Brenda was technically right, but it was certainly not a popular decision,” Mr. Waters said.

They were later replaced by Doreen Bolger, who took over as BMA director in 1998, after Ms. Richardson stepped down from her deputy director and chief curator positions.

During her years at the BMA, and particularly when Mr. Lehman was director, observers said they seem to have had a “symbiotic” relationship, The Sun reported. She ran the art side of the museum while Mr. Lehman raised money and dealt with the public.


Their years there coincided with many notable exhibitions at the BMA, including “Frank Stella: The Black Paintings,” “Barnett Newman: The Complete Drawings 1944-1969,” ”Andy Warhol: Paintings 1962-1975,” “Oskar Schlemmer,” “Robert Rauschenberg: 1970-1990,” and the blockbuster “A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum,” which cost $5 million and was the museum’s most expensive. It was its third-best-attended exhibition and drew nearly 150,000 visitors.

“When she did the Frank Stella exhibition, no one had ever done that before at any museum,” Ms. Caplan said.

“The Stella exhibition was one of the most important of her career,” Mr. Lehman said.

Ms. Richardson’s vision led to the BMA’s largest and most visible expansion, its West Wing for Contemporary Art, which opened in 1994. She had been responsible for the acquisition of 85% of its holdings, including 18 important works by Warhol.

“She loved Warhol,” said Mr. Waters, whose “John Waters: a Film Retrospective,” in cooperation with the Baltimore Film Festival, opened under Ms. Richardson’s aegis in 1985.

In addition to Warhol, “Brenda introduced Baltimore to works by contemporary artists including Bochner, Wiley and Nauman — many of which were quite controversial at the time,” Ms. Harwood wrote.


“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,” The Sun reported at the opening of the West Wing, describing Ms. Richardson as “Baltimore’s iron maiden of art.”

“She is someone who is entirely committed to the field — every bone, every tooth, every hair,” Mr. Lehman said at the time.

Ms. Richardson played a major role in the 1996 purchase of the George A. Lucas collection “of nearly 20,000 works by 19th-century French artists, and the 1998 purchase of the Dalsheimer collection of more than 700 rare and vintage photographs,” The Sun reported.

At times, Ms. Richardson’s decisions were not universally embraced by the public. In addition to the Matisse frames, she ended the BMA’s biennial show of regional art featuring Maryland artists, and in 1988, under her leadership, the museum sold Mark Rothko’s painting “Olive over Red” for $950,000, which she followed with the purchase in 1989 of Warhol’s “The Last Supper” for $682,000.

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“Brenda didn’t suffer fools and in retrospect, she should have picked her battles better,” Mr. Waters said.

“As much as I dislike that word, Brenda belonged to an elite group of curators,” said Mr. Lehman, who was head of the Brooklyn Museum for 17 years, before retiring in 2015.


“She richly deserves a place in the pantheon of strong women in the BMA’s history,” Ms. Harwood wrote.

After resigning from the BMA, Ms. Richardson continued working until several years ago as a freelance arts writer and curator.

“I spend my life looking at art: It’s what I love to do and what I’m paid to do,” she told The Sun in 1994. “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.”

At Ms. Richardson’s request, no services will be held.

She is survived by two sisters, Rosemary Richardson of Bellevue, Washington, and Pam Richardson of Minneapolis.