The Baltimore Museum of Art has pledged to purchase works exclusively by female artists in 2020.
“This how you raise awareness and shift the identity of an institution,” museum director Chris Bedford told The Baltimore Sun on Nov. 14.
“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,” he said.
Radical is one word for it. “Retrogressive” is another.
“If you think about the word ‘artist,’ there’s a tacit assumption that it’s a male genius who is, in fact, the artist,” BMA chief curator Asma Naeem told The Washington Post. “That can be seen in the fact that we even call these ‘women artists.’ They’re not women artists. They’re artists.”
If Naeem is really concerned about the baggage of a term like “women artists,” why is the BMA featuring an exhibition called “By Their Creative Force: American Women Modernists”?
And if she really believes that female artists are simply “artists” and not “women artists,” why is her museum going to great lengths to make a distinction between artists who are male and those who are female?
Bedford chose last year to sell paintings by masters like Andy Warhol and Franz Kline in order to purchase works by women, according to The Sun.
Such an initiative to exclude male artists is premised on one of two pernicious ideas: Either female artists aren’t talented enough to rise to the top on their own, or a sinister patriarchy of museum directors is holding them back.
It’s difficult to say which is more ridiculous.
The museum is oversaturating its galleries with works by women at the expense of other deserving candidates. It’s affirmative action for female artists.
Both The Sun and The Post noted that the BMA’s initiative coincides with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote.
There is a cynical irony in the implicit comparison between the two events.
The 19th Amendment offered women the chance to join a democratic right and tradition from which they had been unjustly excluded.
But art has never excluded women in the same way as American politics have.
There has never been a need for a Constitutional amendment in the world of art because art has no Constitution. It is an open tradition.
The BMA is shamefully attempting to close it, at least in part. In doing so, the museum will only open itself up to more criticism.
The follow-up questions to the BMA’s decision write themselves.
Why won’t the museum pledge to purchase pieces from only women of color?
Why are cisgender women given so many prominent places in its galleries?
Why is a man still the museum’s director?
In Bedford’s words, the BMA is “attempting to correct our own canon.”
If that is the case, more corrections may soon be in order.
Far from being a “daring new policy” or “bold step” as The Sun and The Post would have it, the museum’s initiative is nothing but retrogressive.
The BMA is indeed raising awareness — just not for the cause its curators were hoping for.
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