Christopher Bedford, who over his six years as the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) has been instrumental in raising the institution’s profile—on occasion sparking controversy in the process—is stepping down to take the helm at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA). He will begin as director of the Bay Area’s most high-profile art museum in June.
“I am very much looking forward to collaborating with SFMoMA leadership and staff to further define and develop the museum's mission, priorities and program,” Bedford said in a statement. “This work will by necessity require much listening and learning on my part, and I am excited to begin the process when I arrive in San Francisco in June.”
Bedford’s tenure at the BMA was defined above all by a deaccessions project that crystalised an industry-wide dynamic of attention shifting away from the mostly white and male artists who had long defined the art canon toward a more diverse, global and inclusive narrative of art.
In 2018 the BMA made $16.1m from the sale of seven works, including pieces by Andy Warhol, Franz Kline, Kenneth Noland and Robert Rauschenberg via Sotheby’s. But in October 2020, following widespread criticism and uproar within the museum field, the institution abandoned a bolder plan to sell works by Warhol, Brice Marden and Clyfford Still that would have brought in as much as $65m.
Last spring the museum opened an exhibition featuring some of the works acquired with funds from the 2018 sales of deaccessioned works; it included pieces by Betye Saar, Benny Andrews, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Firelei Báez, Laura Ortman, Beverly Buchanan, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Thornton Dial, Fred Eversley, Ficre Ghebreyesus, Lonnie Holley and Suzanne Jackson. Last summer, in announcing a further 175 acquisitions by the museum, Bedford restated his commitment to offering a fuller picture of artistic achievement.
“Over the past several years, we have been focused on rectifying critical omissions in our post-war and contemporary holdings as part of an effort to tell a truer narration of art history,” he said in a statement. “We are now looking further in history and across geography and culture to reveal artists, artworks and innovations that may have gone under-recognised in centuries past to shift the conversation around collections diversification from the modern era to the history that underpins it.”
In 2017, Bedford co-curated Mark Bradford’s exhibition in the US Pavilion at that year’s Venice Biennale, which subsequently traveled to the BMA. More recently he co-curated (with his future colleague Sarah Roberts of SFMoMA) the major traveling retrospective devoted to Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell that ended its run in San Francisco last month and will open in Baltimore on 6 March. And the BMA under Bedford did not completely turn its back on dead white men. The museum, which is home to the world’s largest public collection of works by Henri Matisse, opened a centre devoted to the study of the French modernist’s work and life last December.
Bedford will replace Neal Benezra, who announced a year ago that he would leave after almost two decades at SFMoMA. At the time the museum was operating with a $17m deficit. His departure came after a particularly turbulent period at the institution, which included the resignation of chief curator Gary Garrels over offensive comments made during a Zoom meeting, and Benezra making a formal apology after a Black former employee’s Instagram comment about the museum’s response to anti-racist protests in the summer of 2020 was deleted by the museum. Last summer the museum slashed a number of programs, including its film series, publishing platform and gallery devoted to Bay Area artists.
Like his successor, Benezra occasionally flouted industry mores around deaccessioning in the name of diversity. In 2019 SFMoMA faced criticism for opting to sell an exceptional Mark Rothko painting, Untitled (1960), with the intention of using the resulting funds to acquire newer works, including pieces by historically underrepresented artists. The Rothko sold for $50.1m at a Sotheby’s sale in New York, and the institution put the money toward purchasing works by Leonora Carrington, Frank Bowling, Norman Lewis, Kay Sage, Alma Thomas, Mickalene Thomas and Lygia Clark.
The great success of Benezra’s tenure at SFMoMA is undoubtedly its $305m expansion, designed by Norwegian architecture first Snøhetta, which took six years and, when it opened in 2016, nearly tripled the institution’s exhibition space.