Christopher Bedford, the leader and sometimes lightning rod at the Baltimore Museum of Art, will fill the position left by Neal Benezra, who resigned a year ago.
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One year after the resignation of its longtime leader, Neal Benezra, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday announced his successor, Christopher Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Bedford, who will start in June, has championed diversity through acquisitions to the collection and salary increases during his tenure in Baltimore. He made the controversial decision in 2020 to sell three major works to diversify its collection, but reversed himself in response to complaints from former Baltimore Museum trustees and community members. In 2019, he announced that for a year, the museum would only acquire work by women artists.
He comes to SFMOMA at a time when the institution is healing from the difficult departure of its top curator, Gary Garrels, in 2020 after he was accused of racism. Benezra publicly apologized and the museum has since established a “Core Team” and undertaken a strategic plan focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.
“The SFMOMA job description struck a major chord, particularly in its demand for values-based leadership, commitment to systemic change and aspirations for diversity, equity and inclusion,” Bedford, 44, said in an email.
“These are deeply shared principles and commitments of my own,” he added. “I cannot wait to begin.”
In a letter to the staff explaining its “unanimous” selection of Bedford, the search committee said it found his track record around diversity “exceptional,” and that this area “has been at the core of Chris’ work, informing all endeavors and driving systemic change across a museum’s culture and output.”
The search committee’s letter praised Bedford’s work as a curator on projects such as Mark Bradford’s U.S. Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale and Mickalene Thomas’s 2019 commission for the Baltimore Museum, which transformed the museum’s two-story East Lobby into a living room for the city, filled with the work of local artists. He also supported the major Joan Mitchell retrospective co-organized by the BMA and SFMOMA.
The new job is a step up for Bedford, who until now has run a museum with an annual budget, in 2021, of $16.9 million and a staff of 182. Its endowment, as of Dec. 31, was $197.6 million; it has no deficit.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a budget of $53.4 million, a staff of 360 and an endowment of $500 million; it too has no deficit, according to a spokesperson.
At a time when museums all over the country are trying to incorporate more inclusivity into their programming, hiring and leadership, the appointment of Bedford, a white man, is likely to meet with some criticism.
But Pamela J. Joyner, a member of SFMOMA’s board who led the search committee with the museum’s president, Diana L. Nelson, said she felt strongly that Bedford was the right person for the job.
“Chris has done the hard work and has a proven record of success in creating a more inclusive art history,” Joyner said in an email message. “Leveling the playing field takes a boldness for which he is known.”
“Though he is not a woman or a person of color, and I understand how that may be an unexpected outcome,” added Joyner, who is herself Black, “I believe he will materially promote the visibility and best interest of those groups based on his past performance.”
Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, who has led the charge on diversity issues, said he felt comfortable with the selection of Bedford. “While I’m disappointed that a diverse candidate wasn’t chosen,” Walker said in a telephone interview, “no museum leader is more committed to diversity than Chris Bedford.”
A person close to the job search who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal its details, said that the SFMOMA position was not an easy sell to candidates, given San Francisco’s comparatively low-profile contemporary art scene and the tepid interest in art patronage among Silicon Valley moguls. The Gagosian gallery recently closed in San Francisco).
Born in Scotland and raised in the United States and England, Bedford received his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College and his master’s in art history and museum studies through the joint program at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
He also studied in the doctoral programs in art history at the University of Southern California and at the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London. Before coming to Baltimore in 2016, Bedford served as director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, and before that, held curatorial positions at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum.
In Baltimore, Bedford has developed a reputation as a disrupter, such as when he announced his yearlong commitment to only acquire work by female artists.
“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,” Bedford said at the time. “To rectify centuries of imbalance, you have to do something radical.”
Some saw the move as showmanship, arguing that female artists should be acquired by museums on a regular basis, as a matter of course.
Similarly, many saw Bedford’s decision to sell works by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still and Andy Warhol at auction — to fund acquisitions of art by people of color and staff-wide salary increases — as a foolhardy move to score politically correct points. While the museum had previously deaccessioned works, in this case, “Baltimore was selling masterpieces,” Arnold Lehman, a former director of both the Baltimore museum and the Brooklyn Museum, said at the time.
How Bedford’s appointment will go over with SFMOMA’s staff members remains to be seen. Garrels, the chief curator, was seen by many there as an objectionable representative of the status quo after he was reported to have said in a Zoom meeting, “Don’t worry, we will definitely still continue to collect white artists.” Amid the uproar that followed — and despite responding that his comments were “a little bit skewed” — Garrels resigned shortly thereafter.
Bedford said he plans to learn from SFMOMA’s staff and “to take time to understand the institution.”
“I know that I am not the person that some may have anticipated or hoped for as the choice for SFMOMA’s new director,” Bedford said. “I respect those perspectives and am coming to the position with great humility.
“What I can say is that I have made the related values of diversity and equity the core of my work over the past 15 years, from collection-building to exhibition-making, staff to board growth and community engagement,” he added. “I feel strongly about bringing those values and convictions to my new role at SFMOMA. This includes ensuring that a wide range of voices are at the table.”