The Baltimore Museum of Art Made a Pledge to Buy Art by Women. Is It Just a Stunt?

To great fanfare, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced earlier in November that the institution will only purchase works made by women in 2020. Just 4 percent of the museum’s 95,000 artworks and objects were made by women, typical of the gross imbalance in art collections across America and around the world.

Christopher Bedford, the museum’s director since 2016, described the initiative as a proactive effort to address a root problem for the art world. “To rectify centuries of imbalance, you have to do something radical,” he told The Baltimore Sun.  

“Women are about to take over the Baltimore Museum of Art,” reads a story in The Wall Street Journal.

Yet one group is raising questions and concerns about the new push at the Baltimore Museum of Art: women in the arts in Baltimore. In a November 26 feature published by BmoreArt, a magazine devoted to the arts in Charm City, more than two-dozen women registered their impressions of the museum’s pledge. Some used words such as “tokenism” and “contrived.” An editorial from editor-in-chief Cara Ober and managing editor Rebekah Kirkman described the announcement as “headline friendly.”

That much is true: CNN, NPR, and scores of other publications—to say nothing of the art press—have run articles about the museum’s “2020 Vision.” As the reports detail, the museum has planned 22 exhibits for 2020 focusing on woman-identifying artists, including a major commission by Mickalene Thomas and a career survey of Joan Mitchell. Nineteen of the shows will feature only works by women.

This comes a year after the Baltimore Museum of Art made a splash with the sale of seven works by modern masters, among them Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, to generate millions for what Bedford describes as a “war chest” to fund purchases of works by underrepresented artists.

The latest push is a “better platform” but still a “boxed platform,” writes Maura Callahan, a Baltimore arts writer, in one of the 27 letters published by BmoreArt. “By making gender a point of promotion, the museum frames the work of these artists through that non-default category, reinforcing the woman artist as a spectacle,” she writes.

Several of the letters echo shared concerns: about the far greater and disproportionate absence of artworks by African American women, for example, or the lack of women in leadership positions to steer decisions made by the museum.

“Why did a male’s call to action seem to resonate so loudly in this instance when women are the subject and have been calling for the same action forever?” asks Donna Drew Sawyer, chief executive officer of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, the city’s official arts council. “Is this initiative an exceptional act of inclusion or exceptional because of pervasive exclusion?”

Sawyer’s letter adds, “A year in the limelight, just like a month to have your history recognized, is inadequate at best.”

How much difference can a single year’s effort really make in an encyclopedic art collection? Bedford declined a request for an interview to discuss the matter, but the museum sent along some outlines about its collection practices. The reality might fall short of the headline-fetching promise.

In 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Art participated in a study conducted by two art publications, artnet News and In Other Words. Between 2008 and 2018, just 12 percent of the museum’s acquisitions were made by artists who identified as women—a bleak figure in line with the rest of the art world. Acquisitions break down into two groups: purchases and gifts. Of the 570 acquisitions of artworks by women over a decade, 235 were purchases. These things change from year to year, but that works out to about two dozen purchases per year.

For 2020, the museum plans to spend $2 million on art, using funds from last year’s sale. Such a purse could buy a few works by prominent artists, several pieces by mid-career or emerging artists, or some combination. Curators propose purchases, museum committees review them, and the board of trustees approves them. Gifts to the museum won’t be affected, raising the somewhat dismal prospect that, by the end of next year, the museum may still have acquired more works by men than women.

“The first thought that occurred to me when I saw the headline was the fact that collecting a piece of art doesn’t automatically guarantee that the artist will find a viewing audience,” writes Priyanka Kumar, a graduate student at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Her letter calls for programming and outreach at the local level to match the purchasing pledge. Other letter writers—among them journalist Jillian Steinhauer, who notes that work by Latinx, Native, and trans artists are all underrepresented in formal art spaces, too—wonder if there’s a plan for after 2020.  

Bedford has undeniably put Baltimore at the center of a conversation about inclusion in the art world. Beyond garnering the attention of the national press, he has championed the work of Mark Bradford, whose appearance at the Venice Biennale he organized (and brought to Baltimore), and Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait (now in the Baltimore collection). Bedford has raised some eyebrows along the way, too.

“You can call it canon correction, but it is a kind of reparations,” Bedford said in his interview with the Journal. At one level, that’s just cringe: Casting the needs of a museum’s art collection in the same urgent moral terms as the fight to correct centuries of slavery and legal injustice could be considered counterproductive. The point about canon correction, however, anticipates a question raised by Nancy Proctor, executive director of the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture.

“My question is, are they also doing the self-critical reflection necessary to interrogate the structures of power that have not only produced the BMA’s collection and exhibitions, but are also produced by it?” Proctor’s letter says. “As Audre Lorde warned us, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’”

In the art world, radical change can be fleeting. In 1992, the Maryland Historical Society teamed up with a group called The Contemporary to bring in an outside curator, conceptual artist Fred Wilson, to re-think the permanent collection. Through the museum’s artifacts, he assembled an exhibition that focused on the stories of enslaved African Americans and brutalized Native Americans. “Mining the Museum” is considered a mile-marker for curatorial studies today, and it was popular with audiences at the time, but a year after the exhibition opened in Baltimore, the society’s director was pushed out. Press reports held that the change was too much for the board.

By no means are women in the arts in Baltimore wholly rejecting the overture from the Baltimore Museum of Art. Leslie King-Hammond, founding director for the Center for Race and Culture at MICA (and graduate dean emeritus), praises the initiative as a “pivotal wake-up call for numerous art and cultural institutions in this nation who find themselves facing similar challenges.” Most of the letters in BmoreArt express a mixture of optimism and skepticism.

“Could the committee decide to collect two works by women for every work collected by a man for the rest of time until the collection is balanced and write that into your bylaws?” Ober asks. While the museum’s pledge for 2020 is welcome, radical change might still be a ways off.

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