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Saturday, February 4, 2023

Pakistani-American Becomes the First Person of Color to Lead the Baltimore Museum

By A Correspondent

Baltimore Museum of Art. (Photo by Mike Steele, CC license)

The Baltimore Museum of Art has named a new director: Asma Naeem, a Pakistani-American, who had been the institution’s interim co-director alongside Christine Dietze. She replaces Christopher Bedford, who last year departed for the San Fransisco Museum of Art. She replaces Christopher Bedford, who last year departed for the San Fransisco Museum of Art.

Naeem, 53, has become the first person of color to lead the museum and will oversee its collection of more than 97,000 objects and an annual operating budget of $23 million. BMA is an institution whose staff has in recent years been vocal about a need to diversify its collection, sometimes using methods that have been controversial with the general public.

Asma Naeem. (Photo by Christopher Myers, courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art)

Born in Karachi, and raised in Baltimore, Naeem practiced law for almost 15 years before switching careers and finishing her Ph.D. in American art.

Accordinngf to ARTNews, the Baltimore Museum has been white-led for the entirety of its 109-year-long history. That makes the museum not unlike most other encyclopedic institutions across the U.S., although there have been signs of change at some museums in recent years as more people of color are named to high-ranking posts.

“As we move forward, there is an incredible opportunity to bring a greater depth of local and global voices into the dialogues about the history and evolution of art, about museums as community spaces, and about the relationship between internal culture to external experience—and in doing so create meaningful change in the field,” ARTNews quoted Naeem as saying in a statement. “I am looking forward to working with the exceptional team here and with our many current and future collaborators.”P

Naeem was hired as the museum’s chief curator in 2018, and she has organized shows there such as last year’s Salman Toor survey, which was billed as the first major one ever devoted to the artist. She is currently curating “The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century,” which will open in April.

Prior to the BMA, Naeem held curatorial positions at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where she presented, among other shows, an early career retrospective of the work of Titus Kaphar, and an historical and contemporary exploration of the silhouette through the lens of gender, race, and technology. She has written widely on American art, contemporary art, critical race theory, the South Asian diaspora, and museum studies. Her book, Out of Earshot: Sound, Technology, and Power in American Art, 1847–1897, was published by University of California Press in 2020.

James D. Thornton, chair of the museum’s board, said in a statement, “The BMA is committed to bringing diversity and equity into every aspect of its work, from the exhibitions and programs we develop to the works we acquire to our internal working culture. Since she joined the museum in 2018, Dr. Naeem has been integral to shaping this vision and to the strides we have made to realize it.”

Naeem received her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a specialization in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American art, and a minor in nineteenth-century French art. She received a M.A. in history of art at American University and a B.A. in art history and political science from the Johns Hopkins University. Between her time as an undergraduate and obtaining her doctorate in art history, Naeem worked as a criminal prosecutor in Manhattan and an ethics prosecutor in Washington, D.C.

According to New York Times, one of Dr. Naeem’s top priorities in her new role will be helping the museum regain visitors lost during the Covid-19 closure. In the 2023 fiscal year the B.M.A. expects to reach 75 percent of its pre-Covid attendance. Other priorities include the retention and compensation of museum staff, who voted last summer to form a union, part of a wave of unionizing efforts at museums across the country.

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