We Must Ask More of Ourselves

We mourn the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and all who have suffered because of systemic racism. In this moment, the BMA wants to reaffirm its commitment to equity, inclusion and justice. We stand with our Black Community and recognize there is more that we can do to create a better, more just society.

Below is a letter that Director Christopher Bedford sent to staff on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, asking the museum to do more with the privilege and power that we possess.

The Baltimore Museum of Art Vision Statement

The Baltimore Museum of Art embodies its commitment to artistic excellence, social equity, and local and global relevance in all of its work. From acquisitions to exhibitions and public programs, every Museum policy and practice, strategic decision, as well as the composition of the Board of Trustees, staff, and volunteers will be driven by these responsibilities. Bold, brave, and essential; it is the unwavering vision of The Baltimore Museum of Art to be the most relevant, publicly engaged museum in the United States and a dynamic model for all others.

Dear All:

Over the course of the past few years, since the adoption of the Vision I’ve pasted above, I have felt great pride in these words and, more than that, the work we’ve undertaken together empowered by this spirit. Indeed, I suspect many of you reading this email came to work at the BMA based on a very similar set of convictions.

But if you are anything like me, you may read these words, reflect on your work, and conclude: I’m not doing enough. How did this work, no matter how righteous or well-intentioned, help George Floyd as he was pinned to the ground by a white man in a uniform, in broad daylight, surrounded by onlookers, as his life faded away over almost nine minutes? His life is one of too many lost to racism. We say we stand for equity and justice, and most certainly we do, but what difference does our work make if it did not make a difference in that moment. And statements of solidarity and support are still just words. I was on the phone with Dr. Johnnetta Cole yesterday morning and she affirmed, ‘I’m right there with you.’ It is hard to discern our relevance.

This is an emotionally confounding position. Dr. Cole did not offer me an answer, and I am not writing to you today to offer my own or to extend solace. But I do have a few thoughts. I am certain I am not doing enough. I’m not sure art matters in the way I want it to. I can’t abide the idea that my children will inherit a world so sickeningly violent, so unjust, and so fundamentally unchanged over decades, if not centuries. And I cannot bear the idea that I did not do everything in my power to bring about a different future for them and every other child in this country. But I, like you, work in a museum, and historically we’ve done an awful lot of talking and not a lot of doing.

But that time must come to an end. And I dare say many of you have drawn a similar conclusion in the past few days. The asymmetry between the world we talk about forging and the one out there is unbearable. In recent weeks, months, and years, you, the BMA’s extraordinary staff, has taken unprecedented steps to translate words into deeds. And I know that your efforts have been impactful. I am thinking here of so many initiatives you have spearheaded: the recent Necessity of Tomorrow(s) expansion; BMA Lexington Market; our partnership with GWCC; Free Family Sundays; Art, Mindfulness and Peacebuilding; literally all of our public programs; our sterling acquisitions; our unparalleled exhibition program. When I think of all of these things and many more, I brim with pride and a feeling of fellowship with you all. I can assure you we won’t stop in any of this work. More than ever I feel a stalwart conviction that equity is not achieved through fairness, it is achieved when action is taken in recognition of past sins, and our work is in service of this fact.

But I want to challenge you all to do more. And it is the role of museums to do more. The greatest artists of our time have been imploring us for a decade to move from words to deeds, to use our privilege and power not to illustrate or propose, but to act. Mark Bradford, my personal north star, Rick Lowe, Joyce J. Scott, Theaster Gates, Kara Walker, Sharon Lockhart. The list goes on. Their work implores all of us in the museum field to do more, to recognize the necessity to change ourselves from inside out and from top to bottom to embody the ideas we espouse. So when we think about our work, all of it, I want us to think along with them about doing. And know that no matter how outlandish your ideas might be, the BMA team is right there with you. Now is the time for outlandish thinking.

We all arrive at this moment with different feelings based on our widely divergent backgrounds. This is our great strength. But knowing this community as I do, I feel certain that sorrow, outrage, helplessness, helpless sadness, vulnerability, and raw anger are all present, albeit in different proportions for each of us. The BMA must stand for and with all people of color in the United States in demanding justice and equity now. Not tomorrow, but now. We can embody this demand in all the work we do, in all our interactions as agents of the Museum, and in all our interactions as human beings. And to our colleagues of color, the BMA stands with you. Black Lives Matter is to many of us self-evident, but it has become apparent that this is a value we must fight for. I often think about our late great Congressman Elijah Cummings and his constant refrain: “We are better than this.” I always believed him, and I still do. But I think we have to earn his faith in us by being better every day, with every decision, never being silent and never giving an inch. The Museum provides you with a platform to do this work every day. We are all authors of the mission. So I don’t question our power. I ask what we’re going to do with it. I’m ready to listen.