Brenda Richardson, who as deputy director and chief curator of the Baltimore Museum of Art made that institution a destination for modern and contemporary art, has died at 79. The Baltimore Sun, which first reported news of her passing, said that she died on Saturday of Alzheimer’s disease.
During the 23 years in which Richardson worked at the Baltimore Museum, she made a point of emphasizing art of the 20th century. The museum had hardly been lacking in modern art prior to her arrival in 1975—the Cone sisters, whom Richardson wrote a book about in 1985, had donated their vast collection rich in works by Henri Matisse to the museum in 1957. But Richardson helped the museum stay contemporary, acquiring works by, and giving surveys and retrospectives to, some of the day’s top artists. Since her tenure there, the museum has retained its focus on contemporary art.
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Speaking of her work on contemporary art for the museum, she said in a 2011 oral history organized by the Archives of American Art, “It did absolutely grow the audience for modern art at the Baltimore Museum of Art. And it was because it wasn’t exclusively regional.”
When Richardson joined the museum, she was brought on as a curator of painting and sculpture. Two years later, her position was changed to deputy director for art and curator of modern painting and sculpture.
In the years that followed, Richardson organized an array of notable exhibitions, including ones devoted to Chuck Close, Gilbert and George, Andy Warhol, Barnett Newman, Bruce Nauman, and Frank Stella. She also periodically ventured beyond art of the 20th century for shows like a 1997 one featuring works from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, which succeeded in bringing nearly 150,000 visitors to the museum.
She also made a point of supporting artists with a connection to Baltimore, however, and earned a prominent place within the city’s art community for it. When the museum opened a new wing in 1982 that enlarged its galleries, Richardson mounted one-person shows devoted to Morris Louis, Anne Truitt, Grace Hartigan, and Clyfford Still, whom she called the “four most prominent artists associated either with the state or the city.” She also offered the Baltimore-based filmmaker John Waters the first institutional survey of his films.
In 1994, Richardson helped the museum grow once more when she oversaw the opening of a new wing devoted to contemporary art. When that wing opened, the Baltimore Sun called her the city’s “iron maiden of art.” On view in that wing were some of the Warhol paintings that Richardson helped acquire, at the time making the museum the institution with the second-biggest holdings of the artist’s canvases. Among those paintings was The Last Supper (1986), a 25-foot-long version of the famed Leonardo da Vinci work that the museum subsequently tried to deaccession in 2020. (The plan was called off amid severe pushback from the public. Before its cancelation, Richardson said the plan “horrified” her in an interview with the Washington Post.)
Brenda L. Richardson was born in Howell, Michigan, in 1942. After receiving a bachelor’s in English literature from the University of Michigan, she attended the University of California, Berkeley for graduate school, receiving a degree in art history in 1966. She worked at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive from 1964 to 1975.
Richardson’s influential career at the Baltimore Museum of Art came to close in 1998, when the museum’s board nixed her post amid what it called “an administrative restructuring.” Arnold Lehman, who had left the museum as director the year before, called told the Washington Post that that decision was a “tragic error in judgement.”
Her intense devotion to artists made her stand out among her peers. “Curators are all parasites,” Richardson said in her oral history. “You know, we’re just parasites on the artists. So we have to do honor to them.” Asked to elaborate, she continued, “I don’t exist except for the artist—I mean, as a professional.”