The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain relevant
The contemporary art market is an intensely and increasingly competitive space, especially for resource-constrained public not-for-profits looking to build relevant collections of exemplary quality to be preserved for their publics; this is a heady charge. When one adds to this equation the increasingly apparent truth that those public collections have been assembled with both conscious and unconscious gender and race-based biases as powerful determining factors, then directors and curators are faced with a doubly exhilarating challenge: to build towards a just and equitable future by looking at what’s next, while concurrently and with equal vigour looking back and correcting the sundry oversights and omissions of the past. Museums are entering slowly into a new era of heightened consciousness wherein histories and futures must be examined and presented fulsomely without the taint of prejudice.
My efforts as a museum director to establish accuracy, excellence and equity as interlinked core values in narrating the story of postwar art began in earnest at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, where I was director from 2012 to 2016. Brandeis’s core value is social justice, a commitment expressed by the University in all aspects of campus life and beyond. As such, it was the job of the museum to align with that core value in our own core activities. The Rose is renowned for its collection of postwar American art, particularly painting, and in the most conventional terms, it is indeed an important collection anchored in masterpieces by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, Willem de Kooning, and Jasper Johns, among others. Glaringly absent from that American narrative, however, was the contribution of black Americans in particular to that postwar history. In my years as director there, we made it our mission to collect the work of some of the most significant black artists working in painting and sculpture in the United States from 1960 to the present, while presenting exhibitions that advanced scholarship and awareness in that area. This was of particular value in a university context where aspirant young curators were given exposure to this way of working and encouraged to pursue similar and parallel tracks joining scholarship with social activism. Our efforts culminated in the addition to the permanent collection of an extraordinary group of paintings and sculptures by Mark Bradford, Mel Edwards, Sam Gilliam, Al Loving, Howardena Pindell, and Jack Whitten. The 2015 exhibition of these acquisitions brought into sharp focus the broad social justice commitment of the University as a focused acquisitions policy designed to throw into relief the biases that have and continue to structure collecting, while moving with determination beyond critique and into action.
Canon correction based in deep research and a commitment to equity and truth in the narration of history were values central to the work we did at the Rose, and those values are also foundational to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which I joined as director in 2016. But the BMA’s public mission has another and more urgent dimension: relevance. Baltimore is a black majority city with a vibrant and growing creative class, especially in the visual arts, grounded by the work of artists who operate on the threshold of formal invention and social action. Amy Sherald, Stephen Towns, and Paul Rucker are just a few examples of Baltimore-based artists gaining national and international attention. Despite these two key facts, however, black Americans have, historically, accounted for a very small percentage of our total visitors, a fact which correlates quite directly with the number of black artists given solo exhibitions at the museum and represented in the museum’s permanent collection. One step in achieving relevance for the BMA is radically altering these three metrics through swift and decisive action, and as part of a broader agenda to add equity and diversity to excellence as our core values as an institution.
Many of the most relevant and sought-after artists from previous generations and working today are men and women of colour, an observation achieving broad consensus among curators and directors, and a position increasingly reflected by the market. This long overdue development has made a competitive market even more so. This applies to work being made – as I type – in studios of the titans of our time – Mark Bradford and Julie Mehretu for instance – as well as by their forbearers, now posthumously receiving the recognition withheld in their lifetimes; Norman Lewis, Jack Whitten, and Alma Thomas, to note only a few. A museum’s permanent collection represents its core sense of self, and among the most powerful statements we can make as museum professionals is to develop the character of that collection with the interests of our public in mind. From the BMA’s establishment, excellence in collecting and a higher than usual degree of boldness have been at the heart of our institutional vision and values. Adding to that criteria the interrelated principle of relevance and equity leads one quite naturally to an emphasis on the art of men and women of colour in the context of a public museum with a civic mandate in a black majority city.
Almost 18 months ago we began discussing how to execute an aggressive but responsible deaccessioning process that met the standards advanced by the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums, while allowing us to pursue with urgency the mission established and ratified by the Baltimore Museum’s Board of Trustees. Balancing those two interests, we arrived at a group of seven works to take to auction that would together provide the war chest necessary to correct the canon looking back, and allow us to buy without compromise the most important work being made today. Much of the positive, but sometimes sensational, press around this action pointed to the fact that we opted to sell work by deceased white men to acquire work by men and women of colour, both deceased and living. This is true, but only partially by design. Certainly, the emphasis on buying work by men and women of colour is highly deliberate. The fact that we would deaccession valuable work by white males to achieve this objective is itself a function of history and testament to the prejudice that has structured museum collecting, that of the BMA as well as most institutions. It was our objective to identify works of considerable value by artists whose work we hold in depth, meaning that to remove these works from our collection would not meaningfully impact the story we are able to tell. The interrelated criteria of market value and over-representation led to a group of work by white men, not by design in the least, but as powerful proof that strong biases have and continue to shape museum collections. The specific redundancy our deaccessioning process revealed was itself proof of concept: the need to diversify our holdings was necessary and pressing.
The proceeds from the sale of these seven works will have a transformational effect on the museum’s collection in the near term and in perpetuity. Already as a consequence of the sale we have been able to acquire extraordinary examples of work by Mark Bradford, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Isaac Julien, Norman Lewis, Zanele Muholi, Wangechi Mutu, Odili Donald Odita, Adam Pendleton, John T. Scott, Amy Sherald, Hank Willis Thomas, Stephen Towns, Jack Whitten, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, to name a few, and with far more to come.
Revisiting and correcting our canon is one part of a far larger equation for museums in 2018 as we redefine our core sense of self. Equity and excellence are the lynchpin values of every decision The Baltimore Museum of Art will make about its strategic direction in the coming years. Acquisitions, exhibitions, public programmes, staffing and board appointments will be considered according to these criteria, all with a view towards remaking and promoting the BMA as the most relevant and exhilarating civic entity it can be. Within this totalizing framework acquisitions are centrally important because they telegraph to the world the deepest convictions of the museum. It is our job to narrate the richest and most compelling history of art and society possible. To do this with artistic excellence, historical accuracy and social equity as our compass points will allow the BMA to become everything Baltimore needs and deserves.
Main image: Jack Whitten, 9.11.01 (detail), 2006, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 3.1 x 6.1 m. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase by exchange with funds provided by the Pearlstone Family Fund and through a partial gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.