The Baltimore Museum of Art made waves with its announcement that in 2020 it would buy art only by women. This would be a bold move for any museum, but it’s right in step for the B.M.A., an institution that has made an effort in recent years to champion the work of under-represented artists. In the past three years alone, more than 20 of its exhibitions exclusively featured nonwhite artists. The museum has also made a point of purchasing and exhibiting art by black women, and has recently acquired six pieces by the Philadelphia-born abstract painter Howardena Pindell, whose richly cosmological work explores race and gender.
“The most important work,” says B.M.A. director Christopher Bedford, “the most relevant, topical, timely, rich, complex contemporary art being made today is being made by black American artists and artists of the diaspora.” Under Bedford’s direction, the museum’s curators are working toward a collection that reflects the population of its city—which is 62.8 percent black—and this means looking outside of traditional institutions to discover voices that have gone missing from the Western art-historical narrative. Such was the challenge for Katy Siegel, B.M.A. senior curator for research and programming, who was tasked with selecting the 70 pieces covering 70 years—the 1940s to the present—featured in the museum’s recent exhibition “Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art.”
“The most important work … being made today is being made by black American artists and artists of the diaspora.”
A lot of labels “keep so many people out, and they narrow the conversation,” says Siegel. When you label something “Minimalism,” it’s only going to have “Carl Andre, and Frank Stella, and a few other artists,” she explains. “But a room labeled ‘Shape’ is going to have John Scott, and Al Loving, and William T. Williams, and Howardena Pindell. And it makes room for a much broader conversation … [about] what else could we ask for from art.”
Expanding that conversation is a mission critical to the artist Mickalene Thomas, whose two-story installation, A Moment’s Pleasure—which re-creates the jazzy interior of a Baltimore row house—is on view at the B.M.A. through May of next year. Thomas is one of the most accomplished artists in America, with work in the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. As her star has risen, Thomas has noticed the absence of black peers, and so she’s included the work of many of these artists in her installation.
Thomas’s shiny and colorful collages, paintings, and photographs, often embellished with rhinestones, depict images of black glamour. The works featured in A Moment’s Pleasure—the title comes from a diary of affirmations kept by her fashion-model mother—key into play, love, and community without struggle as a backdrop. “Black joy is important,” says Thomas. “We don’t celebrate black leisure and black luxury enough. It’s as if it doesn’t exist, [but] it does, and we need to celebrate that.” The artist adds that her vision for the future of black art includes more black art critics, collectors, museum directors, chief curators, and art historians. The B.M.A. shares this vision. —Kelundra Smith