Chris Bedford quietly ends his stay in Baltimore. He plans to quit his job Friday as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art without the slightest hint of controversy.
Low-key restraint hasn’t come naturally to Bedford, 45, over the previous six tumultuous years. But, there is always a first time.
“There will be no goodbye bombs,” he said. “It’s a quiet and dignified outing.”
The museum’s board has launched a nationwide search for Bedford’s successor.
Later that summer, Bedford kicks off his new gig heading up San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, which has a budget roughly three times that of the BMA. Bedford previously lived in California, his wife has family there, and Los Angeles is the home of superstar artist Mark Bradford, with whom Bedford’s career has been intertwined.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an emotional cost to extricating oneself from Charm City and a museum that has become part of its identity.
“When I talk to my future colleagues in San Francisco, I still can’t say the word ‘we’,” he said. “’We’ always means the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“You get to a place and you try to find a landing spot, and then you do, and you don’t always like it until you leave. I’m looking for ways to replicate that experience in San Francisco.
The Baltimore Sun recently sat down with Bedford to conduct a version of an exit interview. He reflected on what surprised him about Baltimore, his proudest moments and his lingering regrets. (Spoiler alert: Bedford has no regrets.)
But first, he quashed a rumor circulating among local art insiders: Bedford said he didn’t set the wheels in motion to get his new job as early as 2019, when the BMA mounted a exhibit of black abstract art drawn largely from a collection owned by his longtime ally, Pamela Joyner.
Bedford organized the exhibit himself, an unusual undertaking for the director of a major museum. In 2021, Joyner, a trustee of SFMOMA, became co-chair of the search committee tasked with hiring a successor to outgoing director Neal Benezra. This successor is Bedford.
“It was pure coincidence,” Bedford said. “Most of the directors of major museums have been in their positions for 20, 30 years. Neal has been running SFMOMA since 2002, and I sort of assumed he would continue.
“But it speaks to the value of building trusting relationships over time with people who share the same values as you.”
Bedford has always cultivated close ties with people above him on the art world totem pole (donors and collectors) and people below him (curators and administrators). During his career, he tended to champion the same group of black artists (Bradford, Jack Whitten, Howardena Pindell) although he was always on the lookout for new talent.
Some of Bedford’s former colleagues at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, which he directed before coming to Baltimore, now hold senior positions at the BMA. Does he plan to lure them to California?
“You’ll have to ask them,” he said. “But I believe in working with the same people over and over.”
From the first day Bedford arrived at the BMA in 2016, he has seemed like a man in a hurry. In particular, he was in a hurry to transform the BMA into a museum closer to the predominantly black city in which it is located.
“I was very clear in my head that we were going to build the plane while we were flying it,” he said.
Bedford had been in the job for less than three months when the BMA announced it would be the lead museum tasked with preparing America’s entry to the 2017 Venice Biennale, the so-called Olympics of the art world. . It was the first time in over half a century that the BMA had been shortlisted for this honour.
The artist chosen to represent the United States was Bradford, the first black artist to fill this role since 2003. Bradford was followed in quick succession by two other black artists: Martin Puryear in 2019 and Simone Leigh in 2022.
“Clearly Mark broke the glass ceiling with his show,” Bedford said. “’Tomorrow is another day’ was electrifying at the time and historically interesting in retrospect. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two artists chosen to represent the United States after Mark are black.
Another highlight of Bedford’s tenure: New York artist Mickalene Thomas’ 2019 commission to transform the museum’s east entrance and two-story lobby into a Baltimore drawing room.
During the two-year installation, which wrapped up last month, the museum’s facade resembled the facades of three Baltimore townhouses bordered by the city’s ubiquitous and beloved front steps. Thomas decorated the lobby with 70s and 80s wallpaper and extravagantly patterned furniture. A spilled high-heeled shoe was found on the carpet in front of a sofa, looking like its owner had just taken it off.
“His installation completely changed the public perception of the museum and its perceived character,” Bedford said. “When John Russell Pope designed the original building, he said he thought of it as the porch of Baltimore. We wanted to create today’s version of a gathering space where everyone is welcome.
Many of Bedford’s initiatives have been widely praised. At other times, his current aircraft encountered areas of turbulence.
In 2020, the museum was reprimanded by the influential Association of Art Museum Directors when it attempted to sell three modern masterpieces to raise $55 million for diversity initiatives. The BMA canceled the sale and is now trying to raise that money through more conventional means.
“The drum that I’ve been beating on for a long time is that there needs to be a symmetry of values between our creative programming and our internal policies,” Bedford said.
“It is not enough to hang a painting by artists of color in our galleries. “We need to build the world these works depict within the walls of our museum.”
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In Baltimore, Bedford was instrumental in launching the careers of local artists such as Stephen Towns, whose solo exhibition ran at the BMA in 2018, and Jerrell Gibbs, who was selected to paint the portrait of the late Congressman Elijah Cummings who hangs in the United States Capitol.
“My show at the BMA was the first major platform I was offered in Baltimore,” Towns said earlier this year.
“I had been trying to get my work shown, and it took me a very long time to do so. Chris helped elevate my work and elevate my status as an artist and open my work to national and international collections.
Bedford said when he first arrived in Baltimore, the quality of the art he saw opened his eyes.
“It’s exceptionally good and exceptionally relevant,” he said. “It was a surprise. And not only is the quality high, but the sociopolitical tone is perfect for this moment.
If Baltimore has more creativity per square mile than other cities its size, Bedford thinks it’s because this metropolis of eccentrics is rushing to its front steps to make way for other people who think outside the box.
“Baltimore is a place that expects you to be bold and brave and move on,” he said. “He’s not afraid to make mistakes. I don’t know if we could say that of all cities.