The Baltimore Museum of Art’s recent announcement that it would exclusively acquire art made by women in 2020, in recognition of the centennial of women’s suffrage, sparked numerous and varied responses—a pleasant reminder about what makes Baltimore the best place: We are critically minded and engaged, and our expectations are still high despite frequent disappointment with municipal leadership and institutions.
We express healthy skepticism because other museums have made so many grand announcements over the past two decades claiming to embrace racial and gender equity, social justice, and unearthing hidden histories in order to transform the art historical canon, and we know that museum collections are still overwhelmingly white and male. According to In Other Words and artnet News, only 11 percent of acquisitions over the last decade at 26 prominent American museums are works by women artists: “a total of 260,470 works have entered the museums’ permanent collections since 2008 and only 29,247 were by women.” The same study found that 14 percent of exhibitions at those museums exclusively featured women artists, and that African American women comprise 3.3 percent (190 of 5,832) of the total number of female artists whose work was collected by those institutions.
The Baltimore Museum of Art reports that women comprise just 4 percent of its collection, so it’s not surprising that the director’s headline-friendly announcement to not only exhibit but also to collect work by women exclusively in 2020 seems like a “radical” move in the right direction and worth celebrating. However, these feel-good messages of equity and progress don’t always align with reality. And institutional change is slow; a cursory look at the statistics reveals we are not doing much better in 2019 than we were in 2009, and quite possibly worse.
BmoreArt has long been an independent publication run mostly by women, focused upon art made by women, galleries run by women, and women in cultural leadership roles. We focus on substance, which tends to be less about conclusions and more about questions. We were thrilled to see the BMA’s pledge, but as we watched headline after headline roll in—first in the Baltimore Sun, then the Washington Post, Artsy, Hyperallergic
The issue of “re-correcting the canon” is complex and deserves substantive inquiry. We wondered what feedback and questions women working in the arts had about this new initiative, so we reached out to ask them about the value of art made by women, the art historical negligence of women artists in museum collections, and to offer constructive feedback for institutions and well-meaning advocates.
This is a great and exciting move, many said about the BMA’s decision. It is an encouraging first step. An unequivocally heartening announcement. Some felt frustrated—not with the BMA, necessarily, but towards the systematic exclusion and devaluation of art made by women since the dawn of time. For others, the announcement prompted critique of an understanding of gender that’s limited by the binary of male and female. Some asked about logistics: How will this acquisition plan actually be accomplished? How seriously can we take the notion that this is a way to truly “rectify centuries of imbalance”? How many years would it actually take to achieve parity/proportionality—in terms of the dearth of art by women in the collection, as well as the lack of art by Black people and people of color, and the absence of art by nonbinary folks? How many pieces of art can $2 million buy, and from which art historical eras? Will the 2020 purchases meaningfully inflate the percentage of art by women that currently comprises the BMA’s collection?
In other words, will this devotion prove to be useful in the long run toward evening the playing field for women? Will other institutions follow suit? If all other institutions made this pledge, how would the numbers move and at what increment? What if they don’t move substantially; what else can be done? How will these historic inequities be interpreted for the public within the museum’s galleries? How transparent, self-critical, and reflective is the institution willing to be?
All of these comments and questions are legitimate. What follows here is a collection of responses, reflections, critiques, and inquiries from women working as artists, curators, arts administrators, and writers in the Baltimore/DC area. Several responses bring up sexism, racism, and classism within the art world and cultural institutions generally rather than directing it at the BMA specifically—these problems are not simply local.
It shouldn’t have to be said but we want to be clear: No group is monolithic. We don’t all agree with each other one hundred percent on this page. Nobody said this acquisition plan was a bad thing or that it shouldn’t be happening. The ability to disagree with one another, to freely critique institutions and institutional figureheads, and to expect transparency and accountability from those institutions is a sign of a healthy community. What shows here is that we care and that we are paying attention. This is one attempt at reading the room. (Rebekah Kirkman & Cara Ober)
Maura Callahan, writer and critic / IG: @chaibrows
Chris Bedford told The Sun that this is an effort to “rectify centuries of imbalance.” I’m suspicious of any belief in this being possible. The BMA’s recent and upcoming exhibition lineup has been exciting, and I appreciated their deaccession move last year. But the issue this campaign of woman-artist exhibitions and purchases presents is the “woman artist.” 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. It eliminates the possibility to present and experience the work in its own right, which is maybe the closest possibility for offsetting a male-dominated art history and art market.
Museums should show more work by contemporary women artists not because they aren’t men, but because they are creating much of the most compelling work out there. And that’s how it should be presented. So this is a better platform, thanks everyone, but it’s still a boxed platform. The reason why Women’s History Month is kind of useless is because it has a beginning and an end; stretching it out to a year doesn’t solve that problem.
Donna Drew Sawyer, Chief Executive Officer of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA) / IG: @ddsauthor
I think there are several important things that need unpacking in this initiative by the Baltimore Museum of Art. The discussion should not just be “in the moment,” but an inclusive exploration by women and men in the arts. I have many questions, including: 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? Is this initiative an exceptional act of inclusion or exceptional because of pervasive exclusion? How can this initiative be sustained past a special event and, in the future, how will collecting institutions be accountable to artists and the audience? These and many more questions are worth considering in the context of the BMA’s announced initiative.
As an African American and a practicing creative, I know that equality in all “isms” is sadly aspirational. A year in the limelight, just like a month to have your history recognized, is inadequate at best. A relentless call to action and accountability seems far more constructive than a year of only collecting women artists.
Zoë Charlton, Visual Artist and Professor at American University, currently exhibiting at the BMA / IG: @zoe.charlton.studio
The collecting process is multilayered and involves more people than just the director. It also involves how artists are identified, who is bringing them to the table, where artists are in their careers, and also involves the politics surrounding the different kinds of economies of identity that are being collected and added to the museum’s overall vision. How does this initiative translate after the first year and what are the goals to shift the percentage of women in the permanent collection? Conversations in museums have to not only center on artists who identify as women, but on curators, critics, collectors, and those whose voices are pushed out of/silenced within institutions.
I don’t understand why the press didn’t ask any of these questions: What is the gender, racial, and economic makeup of the acquisitions committee which is the entity responsible for collecting art at a museum? Is it comprised only of museum employees and trustees? What is their financial obligation? How are you going to manage art donations as well, especially from people who want to donate works by male artists from diverse backgrounds?
I wonder if this is actually about correcting historical omissions because if there’s not a thoughtful way the work is brought into the institution, it can be reactionary and further marginalize the artists you say you want to elevate. For instance, if you’re collecting the work of Black women artists about one specific issue—what does that look like? Or are you pushing it into certain types of categories to reinforce narrow ideas of what art by women from particular identities is? As women artists we are often in private spaces complaining about mistreatment, but we don’t have the power to make the changes we want to see. At the BMA, there are a lot of mid-level curatorial positions, and almost all are filled by women, but a man is at the top, and we are not hearing enough from these women.
At Stable Arts in DC, it’s written in their mission, values, and organizational by-laws statement that diversity, inclusion, and equity is an integral part, and they have laid it out plainly because they want to have an inclusive board. This is a model that museums and institutions need to adopt. This diversity statement is part of their plan and this is what radical change looks like: structural inclusion at all levels.
Teri Henderson, Curator and Co-director of WDLY / IG: @halleteri
I thought that the delivery of the BMA announcement was inherently problematic and contrived. The thing that jumped out at me was the use of the word “radical”—every time I see a white institution or figurehead using this term in academia or in the art world I’m unsettled. Because being radical is so much more messy and intentional than using buzzwords. It involves actively working on undoing white supremacy, which is going to take a lot more work than what Bedford is describing.
On advocacy, if men want to advocate for women, center women’s voices. Let them speak. It’s that simple. Especially if you have the privilege of working in close proximity to Black, brown, and queer women. In my work as a curator I have been in several situations where the people I was meeting with, white men, assumed that I didn’t know what I was talking about or that because I am relatively young and Black that I don’t know what I’m doing. Sometimes I have to be a lot more cold than I would like to be in my dealings with men in the art world because I feel like if I’m not being stern then no one will listen.
I also have a lot of questions. How can one year of collecting art by women, and I am assuming primarily created by white women, undo the long and systematic history of marginalization of all women, including Black and brown women artists? How can one year undo all of the racism, classism, and oppression heralded by the Eurocentric art world??? It’s going to take more than one year of collecting.
Betty Tompkins, Visual Artist / IG: @bettytompkinsart
Showing as part of a permanent museum collection is a substantial boost for collectors who are trying to make up their minds and is my biggest concern with the BMA’s news. If museums don’t actively exhibit what they collect, in recent collections shows and then in thematic shows where it’s appropriate, the move is the same old tokenism we are used to, like so many past years where museums only exhibit certain artists during Black History Month or Women’s History Month. This is always tokenism. After they make a huge example that they’ve shown this to one or two or three people, they go back to the boys club and I see no value in that.
I have so many questions about the BMA’s “women only” collecting program. Now that they have said something and gathered the publicity, it’s up to them to follow through. Who have they contacted? Which artists have they expressed interest in? Who are the galleries? Are they focused on a few mega-galleries like Hauser & Wirth and Gagosian or are they getting into solid mid-tier galleries who have survived and really fight for their artists? These artists are at the point in their careers where museum recognition does them a lot of good. I don’t see any mention of who these lucky women are going to be, but if this is being planned to be enacted in 2020, there should already be a list of galleries who know about this and are preparing presentations for the accessions committee.
Having done this myself, I know that this kind of process and presentation is enormous, and it can take years to reach a verdict. If they don’t have answers to these questions, it means their collecting program for 2020 is now up in the air. Even if they have identified and notified the first 10 artists on their list, they and their galleries, it could be 2021 before anything is actually collected.
Elissa Blount-Moorhead, Artist, Writer, Filmmaker, Producer / IG: @ebmoorhead
While I am of course happy to read about and be a part of the BMA 2020 plans, I am more excited to watch how this will be catalytic and create a wider conversation about women in the museum field. I am hoping this is a beacon for similar actions in other cultural institutions but also a chance to uncover real questions about equity in the art world. For example, I am interested in how this trickles down to museum workers, educators, cafeteria workers, security guards and curators and some of the less public facing women that hold up these institutions with their labor. How will their careers change next year? How will the culture of the space change to embody anti-patriarchal ethos? Acquiring work is great but also what does the board look like in terms of age, race, gender, and other voices?
I will also be excited to hear how institutions that do take on similar commitments as a result of BMA’s initiatives then chose to be inclusive to all women including trans and gender non-conforming women.
Last, I don’t expect the effort or amount of money to eradicate centuries of exclusion but I do think it can spark discussions and forums at the institutions that look inward at pay equity, promotion parity, fees, introductions, placement of work, programming, press, and general support for the new work. There exists all kinds of support and capital which contribute to artists (other than cash) to bolster careers. I am hoping the newly acquired work will occupy prominent spaces and be given the gravitas it deserves. No one wants this to be a compensatory gesture. It should feel like genuine attempt to center great work that has not been centered in the past. I am excited for this as a beginning!
Rahne Alexander, Artist and Writer / IG: @rahnealexander
I could write a long, heartbreaking book on the battles I’ve fought for equal treatment, for myself as well as colleagues who identify as women. There are any number of organizations that speak the language of social justice but do little to actually pursue social justice. There are many organizations that want to relegate the damage they have done to artists and their careers to the past, although the pain they cause remains very much alive in those who have been bulldozed. This feels especially painful when organizations are later lauded for “progressive” achievements when they have not taken care of the old business. I don’t have a good answer for this, because petitioning an organization with grievances is incredibly taxing especially if they aren’t mission-driven to pursue justice. Sometimes it’s better to just walk away and start something new, beautiful, and ethical.
Men who want to advocate for women in the arts need to stop, look, and listen—not just to the women who are currently engaged in their organizations, but those who have had past roles as well. Marginalized people are marginalized by systems as well as individuals, and organizations need to find ways of holding themselves accountable. Every organization has a history. Accountability is hard work, and you have to be committed to that work. When criticisms arise, they need to be heard without defensiveness. Systemic sexism cannot be fixed in a year, and the fun thing about the process of accountability is that once you open the dialogue, a lot of complications and challenges begin to emerge.
It means learning to apologize and make restitution for past wrongs. It means silencing every excuse and sitting with the harms caused. It means looking at who is at the table and noticing who is not there, and who is speaking. It means learning to give credit where credit is due. It means learning how to invite people to the table who have been marginalized. We have a long history of marginalized people giving up ideas to the powers that be just to see them get implemented, even if we get no acknowledgement or reward.
Organizations need to look not only at who is on their staff, but who their constituents are, and who sits on their board. Boards are notoriously imbalanced. Those of us who have been shoved to the margins don’t often have the resources to sit on boards. If I hadn’t found my way on to a board of directors in the mid-90s, I’m not sure that it would ever have otherwise occurred to me that I was important enough to be involved at the board level. Instead, that stroke of fortune has led me into a long career working in the nonprofit sector. I’m not entirely sure that’s something to brag about, but nevertheless, it’s what’s brought me to this point in my career.
Microaggressions are an enormous part of the problem within organizations. Especially within the most well-intentioned orgs, microaggressions can be overwhelmingly painful. They serve to create an atmosphere of hostility and silencing. They halt progress. Attentiveness not just to the content of our communication, but the ways we communicate, is crucial.
Because the bottom line for any organization that wants to serve a community is the goodwill that turns into attendance figures, donations, and word-of-mouth publicity, it’s really in every org’s best interest to pay attention to the ways they communicate with marginalized people. I’m certainly never going to support an organization that doesn’t seem like it actually has my best interest at heart; alternately, when an organization is at least attempting to do the right thing—in this case, by pursuing inclusionary measures in the BMA collection—as they say, I have no choice but to stan.
It’s certainly my hope that they come out of this year with a clearer picture of what the next steps will be. I’d like to see public accountability, for sure—I know so little about how museums actually operate and I know I’m not alone. Removing the barrier of mystery would be revelatory and fascinating. What will the community engagement of this look like? I certainly hope that this will lead not just to more women being exhibited and collected, but that the focus also turns to non-binary artists as well. I hope that this leads to more women and non-binary artists whose voices are being heard and implemented in the decision-making process. And while I’m always suspect of claims of leadership—no entity should pursue progressive ends simply so they can be categorized as a leader—it would be great for the BMA to emerge as a leader in showing how inclusion efforts can be done well. I hope they do, because the bottom line is that those of us who grew up wanting to become artists need to be able to see viable opportunities for us to become artists, and representation is key. Having a place at the table, having a voice is key.
Jackie Copeland, Executive Director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture / @lewismuseum
When I heard that Christopher Bedford, Executive Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, announced that in 2020 the museum would only acquire works by women artists, and have only exhibitions devoted to female artists (in celebration of the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote), I said to myself, “Wow, this is a bold and aggressive move.” I applaud Chris’s efforts to right the wrongs of the art world. But—and there’s always a “but”—who has overlooked women artists in the first place?
The answer is the mainstream art world, those in power: the rich, elite, white men, for the most part. I know Chris’s heart is in the right place, but is this enough to change the entire culturally biased art establishment? Women artists have been overlooked for centuries. The history books are filled with stories of women artists, especially African American artists, who were denied entry into art schools, were denied exhibitions, and were denied even a basic education. Because of the #MeToo movement, I guess, women artists are the new darlings of the art world, right behind artists of color. Right now, at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum where I am Executive Director, we have a stunningly beautiful exhibition, Elizabeth Catlett: Artist as Activist. This is an African American artist who produced significant and beautiful sculptures and prints until her death in 2012. But when I ask visitors about Catlett, they don’t know her. If I say, “Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden,” they say, ‘Oh, yes, we love them.”
So what do I think about Chris’s announcement? I say, this is great! Women artists are doing great work, not because they are women, but because the works are provocative, aesthetically pleasing, and socially relevant. Chris can’t do it by himself, but it’s a start. Let’s see if this is sustainable, and whether it moves more museums, galleries, and art dealers to commit to gender (as well as racial) equity. Will it work? I doubt it, but I guess we have to start somewhere.
Kristen Hileman, Independent Curator and Head of the Contemporary Department at the BMA from 2009 through early 2019
The BMA has a long and noteworthy tradition of smart, dynamic, and thoughtful women in leadership positions as directors, trustees, accession committee members, curators and more. Directors Adelyn Breeskin and Doreen Bolger; donors Claribel Cone, Etta Cone, and Saidie May; trustees Suzanne F. Cohen and Constance R. Caplan; Deputy Director Brenda Richardson; Chief Curator Gertrude Rosenthal; and Curators Jan Howard, Helen Molesworth, Susan Dackerman, Darsie Alexander, and Rena Hoisington constitute only a partial list of the admirable and radical women who have contributed much to the institution over its 100-year history, including empowering other women to realize their own scholarly and creative visions.
What appears to be missing from recent conversations around the BMA is the game-changing and foundational roles that these women, who were constrained by the gender, economic, social, and historical contexts in which they operated, undertook to advance diversity in the BMA collection, exhibitions, and programming and to shape the unique identity of the museum.
TT The Artist, Musician, Filmmaker, Founder of Club Queen Records andcurrently exhibiting at the BMA / IG: @tttheartist
When I heard the words “Baltimore” and “women” I immediately subscribed to this idea, and my initial feelings were, “This sounds like a great opportunity for women artists to have a platform.” Issues around Black, women, and queer artists have been a trend in media in the last few years. It’s good everyone wants to shed more light on the issue, but most of these movements start at the grassroots level, then they become themes and hot topics. Then, larger organizations and businesses capitalize on it because they have the power and resources to do it. I can see how this can be offensive to those pioneering this woman-centered work all along and I see this play out in the music world, too. We have these people in power, and I want to see women in positions of power at the executive level, making these decisions. I want to hear from the women, since this is all about them.
At the BMA, who is purchasing the art? Who is curating the art? Is it men or women? Committees or individual people? How does this work? How much change will we see in one year and how do you measure that? If this is going to be progressive and about real change, then you need to focus your attention on the people who are on the ground doing the work, the women who are representing what you are aiming to do. I want to see more specific bullet points around who is doing what. I want to know if this will include women artists in Baltimore.
I started Club Queen Records as an independent, Black, woman-centric label and, for me, this is about creating a space for women who have their own style and originality getting overlooked, or women with major record deals who wanted to grow creatively and the label wouldn’t sign them. Typically, women are paid less than men in all fields. In music, people don’t invest as much in women, and this is why we need to be involved in these decisions, to give a different perspective, and to make sure we are valued fairly.
Joyce J. Scott, Visual/Performing Artist and Teacher
For me, a huge problem in the art world has been revealing a bias against sculpture created by materials other than those which have been revered, stating that my work was only craft or mixed media or doodoo or women’s work. On the BMA headlines: Why not? It doesn’t cause a war or end climate change, and it helps mend a broken system of exclusion of women artists. For a suggestion: Stop talking and correct NOW. Period. Instead of expecting the museum to screw up, we should support the project’s intent. It should be based on the quality of art and not percentages of women in the collecting, although adding just one very high-quality work seems spare.
Susan Fisher Sterling, the Alice West Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. / IG: @womeninthearts
Women artists have been marginalized for centuries, complicated by an inherently patriarchal system that has nothing to do with the quality of their artistic output. While many institutions are taking steps to correct the gender imbalance, contemporary women artists still face many obstacles and disparities throughout their careers. Art can play a vital role in exploring issues of gender and inequity in society, creating awareness and inspiring action. The more voices and viewpoints that we as a society are exposed to, the more empathy and understanding we will have for one another. All women’s voices need to be shared and heard, especially those that have been and continue to be marginalized.
Kathy O’Dell, Art Historian and Professor at UMBC
My first thought when I read the admittedly headline-y news was: Great! Good for the BMA! They made waves last year by deaccessioning white guys’ work. Now this news of a singular focus on women artists next year. The waves made last year were BIG and REAL across institutions of art and art history. Do they, along with the new news, roll up to being all about Chris Bedford? Maybe on the surface, but “we” who respond to the efforts don’t need to let that be the reality. I personally congratulated and thanked Chris for the bold move last year and this year, but one-on-one, I’d love to have a heart-to-heart conversation with him—or a big open-to-the-public convo!—about the imperatives of transparency of process (#1) and sustainability of collection-balancing and exhibition-balancing efforts in regard to race (last year’s announcement) and gender (this year’s) and ethnicity and sexuality and ability/disability long into the future (#2)—and not necessarily in that prioritized order. I’m sure he and his staff/Board/Accessions Committee have plans for how to implement these imperatives, and I’m eager to hear what they are!
Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims, Curator and Scholar
The BMA’s initiative about women artists complements its efforts to address iniquities in the representation of artists of color. In a highly loaded environment about diversity and inclusion under Christopher Bedford’s leadership, the museum has taken bold, proactive steps where others have just wrung their hands and engaged in circular dialogue. From our point of view, Bedford is acting within his responsibilities as a leader of a urban museum which has to interact with an incredibly diverse audience. He is doing what needed to be done a long time ago by major museums of any stripe. His action are a start but they are a start. If he didn’t take them who would and when? This is no way diminishes the essential contributions and presence of institutions such as the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the BMA is fortunate to have a board chair who is a woman who we presume supports Bedford’s efforts. There was a time when this would not have been the case.
Julia Marciari-Alexander, Director of the Walters Art Museum / IG: @thewaltersartmuseum
The recovery and recognition of women’s artistic practice in places other than within the model of the “great singular genius” is the only way we are ever going to find full and meaningful representations of women in the arts and its institutions. Are there great women artists that are of the singular genius model? Absolutely! AND let’s start looking around, across, down, up, and through, so that we can see and reveal the women who have been hidden or erased from the world they once commanded, although they had no legal powers to do so.
Ashley Minner, Artist and Professor at UMBC / IG @ashleyminnerart
We all have intersectional identities. I am a woman. I am an artist. I am also an American Indian person. I had a mix of reactions to the BMA’s announcement, based on a recent meeting. I received a surprise invitation to the museum with no indication as to what the meeting was to be about. Once there, I was informed that the museum wants to acknowledge the indigenous history of the land it occupies, which is good. But in effect, it amounted to a free consultation from me. They also expressed a desire to collect more art from American Indian artists and I had to remind them that I am an American Indian artist with work for sale, which was a little awkward.
We have since arranged a studio visit and I look forward to getting to know the curators involved. Looking back, the whole interaction made me think about how those who express a desire to embrace social justice and equity often perpetuate oppressive systems through these kinds of everyday interactions. I think the BMA’s pledge to collect the art of women in 2020 is a good idea, and the museum should approach its implementation in thoughtful, women-centered, women-honored, and women-compensated ways.
Suzy Kopf, Artist, Adjunct Professor, and Director of Sales and Marketing at BmoreArt / IG: @suzykopf
As a professor who regularly takes college students to the BMA, I lead a lot of discussions about who gets to be in a museum, which stories are told by institutions and how imbalanced they are. Students cannot believe how much work there is left to do to make public institutions representational. I would rather have heard about the BMA’s mission after the fact; bragging prematurely is a waste of everyone’s time, because without specifics we have nothing. When this story broke, I knew immediately I was going to be fielding all methods of inquiry from people in my life about my feelings on this and that has turned out to be so. As a woman working at a publication where we work to build a platform to all kinds of artists, of course I support and encourage this mission—it is my job to write the women of our time and city into history.
Two million dollars isn’t a lot of money to spend on art, even though work by women is a bargain when compared to their male counterparts, so I am curious, what methods is the BMA employing to make sure they are purchasing the most excellent work? Where is this money coming from and is there a way the public can contribute to this effort? Will the BMA be making any longer term commitment to buy the work of women, like two works by women for every work by a man purchased? Moving forward, it would be useful for men who want to support the work of women artists to educate themselves about the female experience. I’d recommend Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, although there are actually hundreds of books on the subject.
Jillian Steinhauer, Art Journalist, Editor, NYT contributor / IG: @jillnotjill
The initiative is good, for sure, but I think the framing has been overly congratulatory without asking questions about specifics and what this actually means. First off, according to the Sun, the number allocated for this is $2 million, which strikes me as really not a lot. How much work can you acquire with that? Second, following up on Charlotte Burns’s smart points on Twitter, I want to know how the museum will take this beyond 2020. One year won’t make much of a difference—how are they thinking about continuing to work towards parity in the long term?
As a feminist, I very much welcome women-specific initiatives, but I do think there’s a danger of overemphasizing the quest for gender equality at the expense of thinking more broadly about what diversity and inclusion mean and could, should look like. Initiatives that promote gender equality in the art world often end up centering white women, which does not represent real, meaningful inclusion or change. Latinx, Native, and trans artists—to name just a few groups—are all grossly underrepresented in mainstream art spaces; how often do we see institutions launching special initiatives focused on them? A year of working on gender issues is great, but the real value would come in using it to open up a larger conversation about how art institutions can better reflect the diversity and complexity of the world around them.
Hannah Brancato, Co-founder of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture / IG: @upsettingrapeculture
I understood and appreciated the strategy of the headline and its intent to both create a shift in the museum and to create a standard for other museums to meet. I am left thinking about the women who have been raising this question throughout history. I am thinking about the fact that it takes many huge actions by people without much power, which get relatively little attention, before a meaningful but relatively small action gets great applause. I am curious about the advisors, volunteers, artists, and staff at the BMA who influenced this specific choice, and who remain unnamed and uncredited. Though I see that this decision does seem to include trans women, I am wondering about whether this move includes non-binary people and whether a conversation about non-binary artists is a part of the dialogue.
In moving forward, first, make sure that women and in particular women of color are in leadership and that they are named and uplifted for their leadership. This is about structural power and change. That means men and white people and others with privilege stepping back and letting go of control. For those people with privilege and who find themselves in powerful positions, yes, it is necessary to use that power to change standards and structures that perpetuate oppression. How you make those changes matters. It is integral to explicitly credit and acknowledge, by name, the many people who inform and imagine the possibilities for a different world. Allowing this labor to remain invisible is to perpetuate the same structural problems you/we are working to solve.
Will this be a sustained move? Who is part of the acquisitions committee? What is the ultimate goal—does the BMA seek to have 50 percent of the collection from women artists? If so, by when? Will women artists be paid equally for their work? Will artwork by women who were not adequately acknowledged during their time be acknowledged now? How?
The intent of FORCE is to ensure that conversations around sexual and intimate partner violence cannot be ignored and that the value of survivors telling their stories cannot be minimized or ignored. This is not only a women’s issue, but many of us working on it are women and non-binary folks. I think that our work is more recognized today, but that it may still be undervalued in the context of contemporary art. We/I respond by working to tell our own story. Everyone else will catch up eventually.
Priyanka Kumar, Illustrator and MICA Graduate Student / IG: @priyankakay
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. The BMA seems to have addressed this by also agreeing to show more women artists. However, the fact remains that the art world, like most other professions, witnesses wage inequality at all levels, so perhaps considering power structures that function beyond the artists to be collected would be helpful. With the recent hiring of a number of female curators, it’s important that women enter the fold of decision-making. I am wondering if part of the $2-million-dollar budget for collecting art by women could be used for programmatic outreach and support services for all-women artist collectives? Or, could part of the budget be used to create fellowships for female artists working in Baltimore to work with the museum’s collection? I feel like celebrating women in art is a great step overall, but to be a truly radical and empowering decision, there needs to be explicit institutional commitments and transparency around making all spheres of the BMA accessible to women of all walks of life.
Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, artist, curator, and scholar
The BMA’s decision to dedicate a year committed to collecting and exhibiting women artists coincides with celebrating the Year of the Woman in 2020. Female artists in the BMA’s inventory represent only 4 percent of its acquisitions. This is a timely initiative to leverage the opportunity to create a movement of change that will hopefully extend well beyond a year. This action might also become a pivotal wake-up call for numerous art and cultural institutions in this nation who find themselves facing similar challenges. This historical condition of injustice was created through the political and economic agendas of white males. It is fitting that male leadership should initiate the process to reverse the tide wave of these inequities.
Gina Caruso, Executive Director of the Creative Alliance / IG: @creativealliancebaltimore
I’m glad to hear that the BMA is including more women artists in their collection. I’ve always been drawn to work by visual and performing artists who are women. We’re so fortunate to have had so many great Baltimore-based women artists in our midst from Joyce Scott and Oletha Devane who, despite offers to live elsewhere, have made Baltimore their home. The BMA’s decision is overdue, but clearly it takes delicate maneuvering of the current collection, and lots of conversations with donors and the Board. Such a decision is complex and requires focus and commitment. For the past decade in this city, museums and arts organizations have been led by women and the majority of the employees are women. It doesn’t seem like rocket science to me, but perhaps that’s because I was raised in a matriarchy and was raised by a single mom. Over the years, I’ve learned that my upbringing was not typical. We were taught to work hard, express our opinions, be fearless, and cherish our friendships with women. These were good lessons. Half of our residents are women and our staff and board are majority female. Women have led the Board for the past decade, and our first Executive Director is a woman. We present women artists on our wall, women performers on our stage, in our classrooms.
As a woman leader, it’s important not to make whatever we’ve achieved as an organization about me. I like humble people—whether they’re men or women. More importantly, I’ve relied on my strengths as a former teacher. When I was in the classroom, I had high expectations for my students because I wanted them to be successful. My job was to create structure, consistency, and the ability to recognize and nurture their talents and interests, and to expect nothing less than excellence. I work the same way with my staff. I hire outstanding staff who know how to collaborate and support each other to be successful. It’s not about outshining each other—the light is much brighter when you shine together.
Staff who aren’t collaborative, or who don’t share the limelight, don’t succeed here. I know I’m not perfect, and I own my mistakes. It’s hard. Sometimes it takes me a couple of days to admit I’ve been wrong. Who likes to be wrong? Even though I’ve had great male bosses, I can’t remember a male boss who said he was sorry. Ever. I have a son, and our culture is unforgiving if you’re male and sensitive. I’ve experienced it as his mother. It’s awful. I’m lucky to be a woman because I’m not afraid to tap into my sensitivity. It’s a superpower. At Creative Alliance, I feel like I’ve done my job when everyone feels welcome here, from artists to audiences, and when they’ve had a great artistic experience. We do this whether there are 30 people or 10,000. When you do everything to make that happen, it takes more than just a great idea or vision, you have to think of every detail. But when you have a splendid idea, the details often fall into place.
Oletha DeVane, artist, former head of Visual Arts at McDonogh School and Director of Tuttle Gallery / IG: @devanekojzar
In this region, artists struggled to be recognized, not to be tokenized, and wanted to be respected so that they could ultimately be rewarded for what they contributed to culture. When we add race, gender, sexual orientation and identity politics, then the issue of equality affects all of us and makes the conversation so much larger, so much more rigorous. It’s still not enough of a jolt to just know that women and people of color have been marginalized for centuries. Our contribution to the culture must be daily, ongoing and, many times, needs to be reclaimed from dominant or overarching narratives. I feel it’s more important to raise these questions in the workplace, in the arts spaces, and even in public so that people recognize that you’re here. It requires us to explore this idea of historical erasure, re-inclusivity and that the fight is ongoing.
To me, the idea of devoting funds to acquire work of women artists is about social justice and we need allies willing to recognize and change the historical imbalance. In this current climate of hateful speech, intolerance, and indifference, there’s a generation still learning what it means to make changes in society. As adults, our responsibility is to give them a vision and the tools to recognize injustice so that they can become empathetic agents of change. There are so many ways in which oppression and exploitation occur in our world. The wealth gap that exists as a result of colonialism requires a conversation because it has informed so much of our existence on the planet. We (meaning the United States) exist in a privileged position and have the capacity to talk about whether “women” should be collected by museums at a time when women all over the world are being oppressed. My faith teaches that the equality of men and women is inevitable, but we must recognize that and make the change. It requires educating young women and changing our perspective as to how we raise boys. When someone steps up to challenge institutional structure and goes against the status quo, then we all benefit. It should be considered a celebration.
Charnell Covert, Educator, Minister of Social Justice and the Arts, Wounded Healer, Member of FORCE / @justcharnell
Are Black women, trans and femme, and women of all color in this work? There needs to be a transformative, womanist, and intersectional approach to this work. We totally agree with their non-binary piece, but what about differently abled people? Folks who don’t speak English? Immigrants?
Is there an outreach and marketing strategy to get diverse women artists of different ages, ability, sexuality, sexual orientation, religion, size, language, gender expression, and artistic modalities? If not, this must be created, and I’d be happy to individually consult with them to create this.
My hunch is that for as many folks who are sexist, patriarchal, violent, and ignorant to women, there are even more that act that way toward gender-nonconforming or gender-fluid folks. With that said, it should just be a woman’s call. We need that space and it should be community-centered, intersectional, womanist, and radical in its recruitment, engagement, and execution. If this work is not paid, it should be, as socioeconomics are huge barriers that exclude marginalized communities and individuals from the art world. There should be another call for non-binary and gender-nonconforming folks that uses the same multi-pronged approach and effective outreach.
Rebekah Kirkman, Managing Editor of BmoreArt / IG: @slidingdice
I am doing a lot of editing these days. It’s made me more attuned to various writerly and rhetorical tricks and tics, cliches as well as “bad words” and empty but smart-sounding language, and one word I’ve recently become weary of is “radical.” In a hypothetical scenario, if I’d had the opportunity to edit Chris Bedford’s statements before they went out to the various publications, I wouldn’t have let him wear out the word “radical” like he did. I would’ve appended a comment/question like:
I appreciate your enthusiasm, but let’s talk about the actual meaning of “radical.” Many readers, particularly the women artists you are championing, will take issue with this assertion. Is righting a wrong radical? Think about how that word is volleyed around in our current political discourse more broadly—for example, the idea that all people should be able to access healthcare (period) without going into major debt is framed by many as a “radical” stance. Think about how offensive that is to people whose lives are threatened by lack of access to healthcare, who can’t afford it. We’re saying it’s “radical” to make sure that people don’t just have to die because living is too expensive? Can you hear my blood boiling? So let’s be intentional about language and use a different word.
In a pretty nice New York Times write-up about Mickalene Thomas’ cozy/glorious new installation at the BMA, Bedford pulled out another big word in another talking point. The writer mentions some of the museum’s shifts during Bedford’s tenure at the BMA, including the latest news about only acquiring art by women in 2020, and having one-fourth of the board of trustees be people of color. “In a black-majority city, it’s not adequate to put a Norman Lewis painting next to a Mark Rothko and call it done,” Bedford is quoted as saying. “The gesture is too slight and indiscernible. What distinguishes the B.M.A. is fast-paced, radical change, with a view toward what I would call reparations.” And then this, from a Wall Street Journal article: “’You can call it canon correction, but it is a kind of reparations,’ Mr. Bedford said of the emphasis on once-marginalized artists, adding, ‘It’s not over. We can’t just do one show about black artists or women—that’s tokenism. We need to change the DNA of the museum.’”
Bedford is right to acknowledge tokenism and that this work is “not over.” I appreciate the strides toward inclusion, but I’m critical of the language that is used to sell this idea. “Reparations” in particular is a bold word that carries a lot of weight politically, presently and historically, and if you’re a white person you can’t just lob it around and slap it on your own view of what your work is doing. How far do these “reparations” go? How much power/capital/resources are you redistributing here and to whom exactly?
Prodding at these powerful word choices, I remembered a press preview in July wherein Bedford described the new installation of the Contemporary Wing—which I greatly enjoy and learn from each time I visit—as having a “black center with a white perimeter,” as I wrote in my notes at the time. He meant that the artists in this hang of the Contemporary Wing are predominantly Black, while white artists are more on the margins—an intentional and important reversal. But I was struck by the word “perimeter”: a rectangular limit. In other words, a black center enclosed by a white boundary setting the terms.
In more ways than one, it’s my job to critique because words carry different, precise meanings. But let’s take a few steps back now at the wider context: Reading that NYT profile, I was energized by Mickalene Thomas’ artistic ethos which involves sharing resources with other Black artists who might not yet have gotten those opportunities. She is modeling a type of behavior that more of us should emulate. You got a platform? You got some idea you’re really proud of? Share the stage and pull a few more folks on with you, at the very least.
Nancy Proctor, PhD, Executive Director of The Peale Center, Co-chair of the international MuseWeb Conferences on innovation in the cultural sector, and Former Deputy Director of Digital Experience and Communications at the BMA / IG: @thepealebaltimore Twitter: @NancyProctor
A feminist or any radical undertaking usually ends up having to do two seemingly contradictory things at once. For example, in the case of women artists and the canon, feminist art historians often find themselves both having to demand that more women be included in the canon, while at the same time assailing the very concept of the canon as a patriarchal construct and fundamentally anti-feminist. Essentially, you have to say the canon is bullshit, while also saying, “But I want women artists to be a part of the club, too!”
It seems the BMA is doing the first part, saying women should be part of the canon, at least as it is currently defined by their collection. 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? As Audre Lorde warned us, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
I hope that 2020 and every year can be a celebration of art by women artists and others that recognizes the radical differences among those who identify as women and artists, and those who would collect them.
I am thinking critically about the media landscape and the fact that no one has figured it out, that today there seem to be less rules and accountability, less fact checking and research, and so many press releases thinly disguised as news. When journalists parrot the words of powerful individuals without doing any background research or asking questions, they are functioning as PR and marketing.
I am thinking about the currency of headlines and what their purpose is, who they actually serve. I am paying close attention to an institution loudly claiming radical equity and accessibility, but actively playing the headline game and pitting publications against one another and paying large sums to NY-based PR companies instead of supporting local press. In Forbes, the museum director told writer Kim Elsesser that making these changes slowly and over time was the “easy way” and that making a bold claim and letting the details fall into place is a more “radical” and effective solution to centuries of gender inequality in the arts. The author stated that she agreed with him wholeheartedly, but I completely disagree.
Who do simplistic and proliferating headlines serve? Why does the “radical” claim of one powerful man who says his museum will collect the work of women gain so many headlines when the women calling for the same action, and actually working towards this goal (NMWA an obvious example), are ignored in the same articles? Perhaps it is radical for an institution led by a man, historically run by men and a place to celebrate men, to say they want to correct gross historical inequity toward women, but isn’t it more radical to actually do the work and then let the women brag about it after the work is done?
As a woman and the editor of a Baltimore-based art magazine run by women that focuses largely on women artists, I am frustrated with a museum claiming radical openness and equity and deliberately not including us as a viable news source. This story was promised as an exclusive to a NY-based newspaper, but accidentally leaked to The Sun, who insisted on running it, and quickly. In the rush for headlines, the claim that donations of works by men would not be accepted in 2020 was made by the museum, and then repeated by 20 or 30 other publications, and then quietly withdrawn. The Sun article has a tiny correction on it—that the museum will, in fact, accept donations of art by men (and this is obvious to anyone who has done their homework because this is an untenable and silly claim) but the other publications who ran exclusively on quotes from The Sun have not made the correction.
My team was not notified about this headline-worthy announcement, perhaps because it was not officially announced, and we asked the museum repeatedly for information but it was not available during the critical window of time while the story was spreading virally, so we were not able to ask critical questions that might have actually prevented misinformation from being spread. I am happy to report that the museum has since made itself available to talk with BmoreArt and I look forward to the conversation. I am including some of my questions here for other journalists who may want to complicate their headlines with discourse or research in the future. Even in these days of a collapsing media landscape, journalists need to realize their power in holding powerful institutions accountable to their claims and not serving as PR clickbait for them.
1. When was your board of directors and accessions committee notified of the “women only” collecting initiative? Who are the members of the accessions committee? What is the director’s role in working with this committee and who decides what art to buy?
2. You pledge to spend $2 million on art by women in 2020, using funding from the deaccessioning. How much money has the BMA previously spent on art by women each year, over the past 20 years?
3. If women currently make up 4 percent of the museums collection, what percentage will be reflected after this one year is complete?
4. It’s important to look at historic omissions separately from contemporary ones. How do you account for works with unknown makers? What percentage of the 21st century collection is female vs. the ancient or American or European modernist collections? Will you pursue more historical works in order to fill in gaps where the collection is most unbalanced? And how would this be possible, given the limited availability of art by women from those periods?
5. Will you buy more works on paper because they are more affordable, even though these works must spend most of their time off view, or will you purchase more expensive works that can stay in galleries more long-term? Will you buy a certain percentage of work by Baltimore-based artists?
6. In the spirit of radically supporting women artists, it seems contradictory to this message that your historic Sarah Oppenheimer commission was uninstalled from the Contemporary Wing, even though it was supposed to be permanently on view and a significant commission for a woman artist. What plans are in place to honor the historic commitment made to this woman artist and others whose works are in the collection but have never been viewed?
7. What percentage of the museum collection relies more on donor gifts vs. purchases?
8. I fear that a one-year plan could be tokenizing rather than substantive. After it’s over, how will the museum be different? Or, will things will go back to normal? If the museum made slow, long-term, structural, and sustainable changes across all departments and committees, and made them part of the way the accessions committee functions, what would this look like? Are you considering long-term plans for equity as well? For example, 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?
9. The BMA actually has a long tradition of “radical” inclusion through free admission, collecting historic works by African American artists and women and supporting the efforts of Baltimore-based artists. It’s important to acknowledge the efforts and ethics of this museum as part of a tradition, rather than presenting these new initiatives as the solution to their predecessors’ negligence (“white and sleepy” in the WSJ article), which is somewhat specious. With subsequent announcements, can you better acknowledge that women in arts leadership roles, especially women museum directors such as predecessor Doreen Bolger, are not given the same trust, freedom, and agency to enact sweeping and “radical” changes without first convincing their board members, and that this actually prevents them from enacting the same kinds of fast-paced changes? Can this unfair privilege be acknowledged, as well as their effective work on these issues?
10. The 2020 date for women’s suffrage is not celebrated by women of color, who were not able to exercise their right to vote until the Voting Rights Act was passed almost 50 years later, on August 6, 1965. Can you talk about how racial segregation in the women’s movement complicates the way many women will receive the museum’s “year of the woman” programming? Have you considered ways to address the historic legacy of racism within this 100-year anniversary, and the racial divide within the women’s movement?
As a woman, the frustration of feeling unseen and unheard, despite doing excellent work or having your research, ideas, and work credited to men is painful and quite common. Powerful men have a significant role to play in changing this dynamic, and I want to applaud any man who places the work of women in the spotlight and especially in the permanent collection, although I still question whether this is radical. Is the mere act of an institution doing the right thing radical? The tired, predictable, centuries-old traditions of the erasure and denigration of women in the arts will never substantively change if the stories we are telling are simple and feel-good and incomplete. The historic gender imbalance in the art world will never change until powerful men realize that stepping aside, quieting down, and abdicating their pedestals, microphones, egos, and platforms is necessary in creating a truly “radical” space for women to exist.
We want to thank all of the women who contributed their thoughts to this complicated, long, and rich conversation and to those who declined, some of whom cited the legitimate fear of a power imbalance between artist and institution. It’s important that our institutional leaders realize that we care, we are paying close attention, and we look forward to continuing this conversation.