Can a museum that has been operating since 1914 be “reconceived from scratch”? That’s what the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) pledges to do with a long-term research and planning project supported by a $150,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Announced yesterday, September 13, the “Mellon Initiative” seeks to reimagine the BMA’s structure and function in society based on working groups and community outreach. According to the museum, the plan is an extension of its 2018 strategic plan, which aimed to diversify its exhibitions, acquisitions, public programming, staff, and board.
The first phase of the program will be a series of surveys and small group sessions among artists, community leaders, and program partners to initiate dialogue about the role of the museum and “the requirements it needs to fulfill to truly be situated within the cultural and social fabric of its city.” These conversations will lead to a multi-day public event in spring 2022 to “collectively imagine new institutional models.” According to the BMA, this phase will result in the “articulation of new museum structures and approaches.” Additional phases will be announced upon the conclusion of this first step.
To lead the project, the BMA has hired Keondra Prier, a former senior educator at the Walters Art Museum and the Brooklyn Museum. Prier will work with Gamynne Guillotte, the BMA’s Chief Education Officer, along with other senior leadership at the museum. It has also formed an eight-member steering committee of local and regional leaders and stakeholders coming from art and culture, civic services, education, community organizing, and law: Zoë Charlton, George Ciscle, Omar Eaton-Martínez, Adam Holofcener, Kennedy McDaniel, Antoinette Peele, Jessica Solomon, and Lu Zhang.
“The entrenched systems upon which museums were built and continue to exist today are not suited to actualizing change, in part because they are not designed to listen to, connect with, and engage communities,” said the BMA’s director, Christopher Bedford. “As a result, museums are failing to embrace, reflect, and serve a diverse public.”
In 2020, the BMA faced fierce backlash from art world figures, including some of its former curators and trustees, for its plan to deaccession works by Clyfford Still, Brice Marden, and Andy Warhol for a combined estimated value of $65 million. Funds from the auction sale were meant to support staff salaries, equity programs, and new acquisitions. The public pressure, culminating in an open letter signed by art historians and the museum’s former director Arnold Lehman, forced the BMA to cancel the planned sale on October 28, 2020. In February, the museum received three gifts from philanthropists, totaling over $1 million, to support its diversity and inclusion plans. It has also acquired 65 works by women artists as part of its “2020 Vision” initiative to increase the representation of women in its collection.
“Many art museums are grappling with issues both inherited and novel to their place and time, and often those debates happen within the walls of the institution, out of the view of the many publics that museums serve,” said Guillotte. “We hope that the organizations with whom we collaborate, the audiences we engage, the artists we exhibit and collect, and interested stakeholders can explore the challenges that face art museums and help us collectively envision new ways of being together with people, ideas, and art.”