The Baltimore Museum of Art is home to 95,000 works encompassing everything from ancient mosaics to the paintings of European masters and cutting-edge contemporary creations. But just 3,800 items from the museum’s vast collections were made by women artists—an imbalance the Maryland institution is now making a concerted effort to rectify.
As Mary Carole McCauley reports for the Baltimore Sun, the BMA has pledged that every work of art acquired for its permanent collection next year will be created by a woman. This rule will apply to pieces obtained through both purchases and donations.
The newly announced campaign is part of the museum’s “2020 Vision” initiative, which marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment. In August, the BMA announced that all of its 2020 programming would be devoted to showcasing the achievements of female-identifying artists. Among the upcoming exhibitions are a show exploring the artistic creations of 20th-century African women, a retrospective devoted to American abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell, and an exhibition—tentatively titled “Women Behaving Badly”—spotlighting representations of female power and protest in European and American art. “By Their Creative Force,” a show centered on the contributions of female modernists such as Maria Martinez and Georgia O’Keeffe, is already open to visitors.
Last April, the BMA announced plans to sell seven works by white male artists (including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Franz Kline) in order to fund the purchase of more pieces by women and artists of color. Among the works the BMA ultimately acquired were a painting by Amy Sherald, who created the official portrait of Michelle Obama seen in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery; two film pieces by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley; and a sculpture by Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu.
The BMA’s decision to deaccession, or officially remove from its holdings, works by modern masters like Warhol has proven controversial.
“The use of deaccession is a violation that goes right to the heart, trust and credibility of a museum's mission and obligation to preserve and protect art history,” David Maril, whose father was one of the first artists to serve on the museum’s Board of Trustees, wrote in an April opinion piece for the Baltimore Sun.
But the museum’s director, Christopher Bedford, insists that there can be no half measures when it comes to correcting long-standing race and gender inequities in the museum sphere.
“This [is] how you raise awareness and shift the identity of an institution,” he tells McCauley. “You don’t just purchase one painting by a female artist of color and hang it on the wall next to a painting by Mark Rothko. To rectify centuries of imbalance, you have to do something radical.”
The BMA is far from the only institution in which women’s works are underrepresented: A recent investigation conducted by artnet News and In Other Words found that female-created artworks made up just 11 percent of the pieces acquired by 26 major American museums over the past decade. And only 14 percent of exhibitions at those same museums were devoted to women artists.
“More troubling,” the authors of the report wrote, “there have been few advances made—even as museums signal publicly that they are embracing alternative histories and working to expand the canon. The number of works by women acquired did not increase over time. In fact, it peaked a decade ago.”
Although the BMA’s shift in curatorial focus has attracted its fair share of detractors, the campaign has also won praise from industry experts who applaud the institution’s efforts to tackle the art world’s gender imbalance.
“What the Baltimore museum is doing is so cool,” Bianca Kovic, incoming executive director of the National Association of Women Artists, tells McCauley. “We think all museums should do it. It’s particularly important that the BMA is creating a platform for [women] artists to showcase their work, because that will inspire other women to make art.”