BMA set to take gi­ant step onto the world’s art stage

Mu­seum to as­sem­ble U.S. en­try in 2017 Venice Bi­en­nale

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Mary Ca­role McCauley

After less than three months in his new job, Bal­ti­more Mu­seum of Art di­rec­tor Christo­pher Bed­ford is about to put the mu­seum into the in­ter­na­tional spot­light.

The mu­seum an­nounced Thurs­day that it would be the lead in­sti­tu­tion charged with putting to­gether Amer­ica’s en­try into the 2017 Venice Bi­en­nale — con­sid­ered the world’s most in­flu­en­tial art show. Over time, the im­pact from that event is ex­pected to be felt in Bal­ti­more.

“The Venice Bi­en­nale is the old­est and most pres­ti­gious in­ter­na­tional art ex­hibit in the world,” Bed­ford said.

“It is of­ten re­ferred to as ‘the Olympics of the art world.’ To rep­re­sent the U.S. in Venice is a tremen­dous honor. To us, this is no dif­fer­ent than Michael Phelps swim­ming for the U.S. in Rio de Janeiro. And the even­tual Bed­ford

ben­e­fi­cia­ries are go­ing to be the Bal­ti­more art­go­ing pub­lic.”

The BMA will work with two other or­ga­ni­za­tions (the Rose Art Mu­seum at Bran­deis Univer­sity and the U.S. State Depart­ment) to present the works of Los An­ge­les-based artist Mark Brad­ford, which will be on view in Venice from May 13 to Nov. 26 next year.

In ad­di­tion, the U.S. ex­hibit is ex­pected to travel to the Bal­ti­more mu­seum in the spring of 2018.

A few weeks be­fore Bed­ford was ap­pointed as di­rec­tor of the Bal­ti­more mu­seum, he was se­lected to or­ga­nize Amer­ica’s en­try into the com­pe­ti­tion in Europe. What’s new in Thurs­day’s an­nounce­ment is that the Bal­ti­more Mu­seum of Art will be take on an ex­panded role.

The BMA staff will be re­spon­si­ble for all as­pects of the U.S. Pav­il­ion, in­clud­ing cu­rat­ing the ex­hibit, ship­ping and crat­ing the art, in­sur­ing the works and pre­par­ing the book that will ac­com­pany the show. Much of the cost of or­ga­niz­ing a show over­seas, Bed­ford said, will be cov­ered by a grant from the State Depart­ment.

“With­out ques­tion, this is the great­est honor ac­corded in the con­tem­po­rary art world,” Bed­ford said. “This is so pres­ti­gious, so deeply and to­tally global that it in­stantly plants the BMA in the in­ter­na­tional spot­light.”

Costas Grimaldis, owner of C. Grimaldis Gallery, said that the com­mis­sion is “a feather in Bal­ti­more’s cap” — but only if the ex­hibit ul­ti­mately is a suc­cess. (The Mount Ver­non gallery is one of Bal­ti­more’s premier show­cases of con­tem­po­rary art; its client list in­cludes artists with na­tional and in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tions.)

“It’s a great honor,” he said. “It’s some­thing that the whole world looks at ev­ery two years.”

The U.S. Pav­il­ion, he said, is housed in a beau­ti­ful — but po­ten­tially prob­lem­atic — old Neo­clas­si­cal build­ing. The ad­van­tage is that it’s one of the first build­ings that vis­i­tors see when they walk into the Bi­en­nale. The chal­lenge, he said, is “the way it’s di­vided; it’s a dif­fi­cult space for an artist to work with.”

His­tor­i­cally, the U.S. Pav­il­ion has been among the most im­por­tant and vis­i­ble ex­hi­bi­tion spa­ces at the Bi­en­nale, which runs in odd-num­bered years. Dur­ing the 56th Bi­en­nale pre­sented in 2015, 53 coun­tries com­peted for the cov­eted “Golden Lions.”

The top prize for 2015 was won by Ar­me­nia; the U.S. ex­hibit show­cas­ing the works of Joan Jonas was sin­gled out by the jury for spe­cial no­tice.

That year, about 500,000 vis­i­tors flocked to the show over seven months. In ad­di­tion, 670 mem­bers of the news me­dia vis­ited the U.S. Pav­il­ion.

The last time the Bal­ti­more Mu­seum of Art led Amer­ica’s ex­hibit in the fes­ti­val was in 1960, when it pre­sented the works of four piv­otal Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ist artists: Hans Hof­mann, Franz Kline, Philip Gus­ton and Theodore Roszak.

The Bal­ti­more artist Joyce J. Scott, who won a 2016 MacArthur “ge­nius” fel­low­ship, took part in a col­lat­eral ex­hi­bi­tion at the 2013 Venice Bi­en­nale.

“For the BMA to have any­thing to do with the Venice Bi­en­nale is enor­mous,” she said. “It does so much for the cred­i­bil­ity and grav­i­tas of the in­sti­tu­tion and the artists it presents.”

Bed­ford noted that Brad­ford’s in­stal­la­tion will be just the third time since the Bi­en­nale be­gan in 1895 that the U.S. has show­cased an African-Amer­i­can artist. The U.S. was rep­re­sented by Robert Co­le­scott in 1997 and by Fred Wil­son in 2003.

“Mark is one of the great­est artists — and cer­tainly the great­est Amer­i­can painter — of his gen­er­a­tion,” Bed­ford said. “He is at the peak of his pow­ers.”

Brad­ford’s in­stal­la­tion will in­clude two com­po­nents, the first rooted in the art world and the sec­ond in ac­tivism. The artist is at work cre­at­ing about a half-dozen new paint­ings and sev­eral sculp­tures and videos.

In ad­di­tion, he will cham­pion prod­ucts cre­ated by the in­mates of two Ital­ian pris­ons.

The in­mates of a women’s prison, Bed­ford said, raise veg­eta­bles that are sold in Venice’s mar­kets and man­u­fac­ture cos­met­ics that are sold in the city’s ho­tels. In­mates of a male prison re­cy­cle ban­ners and make them into tote bags and purses.

As part of his pre­sen­ta­tion, Brad­ford is rent­ing out sev­eral store­fronts in Venice where the pris­on­ers’ prod­ucts will be sold, and he is work­ing with an ar­chi­tect to de­sign those spa­ces. Even­tu­ally, Bed­ford said, some of the in­mates’ wares could end up in mu­seum shops — in­clud­ing at the BMA.

He hinted that the artist could un­der­take a sim­i­lar project when his work comes to Bal­ti­more in the spring of 2018.

“The way Mark or­ga­nizes his life in Los An­ge­les is be­tween his stu­dio on one hand and his so­cial ac­tivism on the other,” Bed­ford said. “He’ll be do­ing some­thing very sim­i­lar in Venice. Our view is that art isn’t the Tem­ple on the Mount. It’s an op­por­tu­nity for pub­lic en­gage­ment.”

Scott pre­dicted that the ex­hibit at the BMA in 2018 will draw tourist dol­lars. Art lovers from other cities un­able to travel to Italy next year might opt in­stead to make a less costly visit to Bal­ti­more to check out Brad­ford’s pre­sen­ta­tion, she said.

Bal­ti­more could also ben­e­fit in an even more im­me­di­ate and tan­gi­ble way. It’s not un­usual for artists rep­re­sented in the Venice Bi­en­nale to make gifts to their pre­sent­ing mu­se­ums.

For ex­am­ple, the BMA owns three paint­ings that spokes­woman Anne Brown said were “likely given to the BMA” as a re­sult of the 1960 Bi­en­nale: Hof­mann’s “Sum­mer Night’s Bliss,” cre­ated in 1961; Kline’s “Un­ti­tled” from 1958; and Gus­ton’s “The Or­a­cle” from 1974.

Thurs­day’s an­nounce­ment also presents a clear in­di­ca­tion of the di­rec­tion in which Bed­ford hopes to steer the BMA.

His ideal mu­seum will cham­pion con­tem­po­rary, avant-garde art. It will have a strong in­ter­na­tional pres­ence. It will be known for mu­seum-based so­cial ac­tivism that ben­e­fits the lo­cal com­mu­nity.

“This is the mo­ment I have been work­ing to­ward for my en­tire ca­reer,” Bed­ford said. “The 2017 Venice Bi­en­nale has the po­ten­tial to be trans­for­ma­tive for Bal­ti­more.”

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