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‘Groundbreaking’ BMA exhibit won’t be the last of its kind | COMMENTARY

In this 2018 file photo, security guards flank one of the galleries in the Cone Wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Next year, the BMA will open an exhibition curated by 17 of its security guards, called "Guarding the Art."
In this 2018 file photo, security guards flank one of the galleries in the Cone Wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Next year, the BMA will open an exhibition curated by 17 of its security guards, called "Guarding the Art." (Sun photo by Christopher T. Assaf)

When the Baltimore Museum of Art announced earlier this month a groundbreaking exhibition entitled Guarding the Art, scheduled to open at the museum next spring, the sheer volume of traffic quite literally crashed our website. A good problem to have, to be sure, and also very telling. The exhibition originated as the idea of a long-serving trustee of the museum, Amy Elias, and quickly developed a life of its own within our walls. Like most original ideas, the concept is actually quite simple: to invite our security officers to organize an exhibition of works drawn from our collection. All told, 17 security officers will participate in this project as curators, with one of this country’s most esteemed curators, Lowery Stokes Sims, acting as an adviser, along with Asma Naeem, the BMA’s Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator. When the exhibition opens next year and the accompanying catalog is published, it will be the first of its kind for the BMA, but certainly not the last.

Guarding the Art shares two crucial things with recent BMA initiatives like the 2020 Vision celebration of women artists and leaders, and the Now Is The Time exhibition of recent acquisitions of works by artists of color borne out of our 2018 deaccessioning of seven paintings by white, male artists. First, a desire to engage with the metabolism of mainstream politics and secondly, the desire to drive an agenda of positive change with every decision.

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Museums do not exist separate and apart from society. Guarding the Art contests the idea that only the privileged few within a museum’s structure — the curators — are adequately trained and therefore solely entitled to present and interpret art. The show is about multiplicity and sharing authorship to broaden our collective appreciation for the creativity of others. Deaccessioning to diversify our collection acknowledged that centuries of racist bias in collecting cannot be remedied with addition alone, but, rather, proportional sacrifices have to be made to achieve a just account of art history. And finally, 2020 Vision points to the lie that museum collections are assembled based solely on objective merit; a 96% male collection makes that specious claim impossible to uphold as truth. Each of these initiatives is deliberately polemical, intertwining our work very intentionally with social justice efforts reshaping the cultural landscape in this country.

One of the reasons the BMA can undertake such bold initiatives, with all the attendant risk, is a fierce investment in the promise of systemic change that is shared by the Board of Trustees and the staff alike. Our mission and vision statements, both rewritten and ratified in 2018, make the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, access and social justice central to every decision we make at the museum. This can be applied to all aspects of our structure and functioning: board, staff, exhibitions, acquisitions, public programs, vendor selections and so on. The proposal is, therefore, one of world modeling. Given the scale of our institution, it is possible to move faster than society at large, modeling in the process the world order we imagine and hope for more broadly.

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But to do that work requires alignment of vision, values and purpose, which returns us to Guarding the Art. That this exhibition is gaining so much attention many months before it even opens speaks to a deep desire in the art world and beyond to see authorship and power shared up and down hierarchies, and to extend to everyone with a desire, irrespective of training or purported expertise, the chance to represent their views in a public space. Much has been made in the press of the fact that such democratic impulses are being exclusively driven by the staffs of museums, not by Trustees, implicitly pitting one group against the other. While very often this is all too true, this is precisely not the case at the BMA, as the genesis of Guarding the Art attests. Brilliant ideas, bold creative vision and a willingness to absorb risk are all well and good, but those are mere words without the alignment of cultural values within an institution and throughout a hierarchy necessary to render aspiration reality. My profound confidence in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s capacity to keep pushing the envelope in the direction of positive change and the eventual realization of our mission is rooted most profoundly in the value-alignment that so powerfully binds our Board, staff, and broader community in a just, mutual purpose.

Christopher Bedford (cbedford@artbma.org) is the Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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