The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) has appointed Asma Naeem as its new director. Announced by the museum on Tuesday, January 24, her tenure will begin on February 1, when she will become the first person of color to lead the institution.
BMA Board of Trustees named Naeem the museum’s 11th director after a 10-month search following Christopher Bedford’s resignation in June 2022. (Bedford now helms the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.) Naeem has worked at the Baltimore museum for five years, first as its chief curator and most recently as interim co-director; previously, she was a curator in the prints and drawings department at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
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The Baltimore institution has been the subject of controversy in recent years. In 2020, the museum drew criticism for its plan to sell three paintings by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still, and Andy Warhol and use the estimated proceeds of $65 million to fund staff salaries, equity programs, and new acquisitions. Former presidents of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) sent a letter to then-board chair Clair Zamoiski Segal urging the institution to reconsider, and a group of former BMA trustees and other museum supporters signed an open letter in protest. Artists Adam Pendleton and Amy Sherald both resigned from the Board of Trustees during this period, though neither cited the deaccession plan as the reason. The sale was eventually halted hours before two of the paintings by Still and Marden were slated to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s (the Warhol was to be sold privately).
Despite the sale’s cancellation, the institution announced that it would continue to pursue its “Endowment for the Future” initiative, set in motion by a $1 million lead gift from philanthropist and collector Eileen Harris Norton in February 2021 that would help fund new acquisitions by artists of color, among other projects.
Naeem is also ascending into her role as director less than a year since nearly 140 workers at the BMA voted to form a “wall-to-wall” union covering all employees, including retail operations, curation, and security departments. Back in March 2022, workers demonstrated in front of museum steps during an exhibition curated by the museum’s security guards to pressure former BMA Director Christopher Bedford to sign the City of Baltimore’s union election agreement.
Over the course of her career at BMA, Naeem curated exhibitions such as Candice Breitz: Too Long, Didn’t Read, Salman Toor: No Ordinary Love, and the forthcoming The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century.
Too Long, Didn’t Read, which ran from March 15, 2020, through November 15, 2020, displayed two multichannel video installations by Breitz, a South African-born artist, that reflect on internet and celebrity cultures. The Salman Toor exhibition featured the Pakistan-born artist’s reinterpretations of historical works, such as Sir Anthony van Dyck’s “Rinaldo and Armida” (1629) featuring brown, queer figures, and is traveling to other institutions such as the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University and the Tampa Museum of Art. No Ordinary Love also included a catalogue with essays by writers such as art critic Evan Moffitt and magazine editor and novelist Hanya Yanagihara.
The upcoming show she co-curated, The Culture, celebrates the influence of Hip Hop culture on contemporary art on the 50th anniversary of the global movement’s birth.
In a statement to Hyperallergic, Naeem hinted broadly at her vision for the institution. “Art does not conform to geopolitical boundaries,” Naeem said. “We are seeking to show visitors how interconnected cultures are and to surface Non-Western influences that permeate the historical art canon.”