Working to make museums more inclusive
Baltimore Museum of Art’s new board chair Thornton seeks to change the dynamic of who sees its exhibits
James Thornton didn’t step foot into a museum until much later in life. Now, he’s the board chair of the Baltimore Museum of Art — the first person of color in the museum’s history to hold that position.
“Historically, museums have not been viewed by a wide range of people as being friendly to them, because their life experiences just did not interconnect with a museum,” Thornton said. “I grew up in the South, and so it was much later in life that I even connected with a museum.”
His appointment this month as the BMA’s 26th board chair offers an opportunity to change that dynamic for communities in and around Baltimore, building on the foundation laid by former BMA director Chris Bedford, who resigned in February to take a position to lead the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“I’m committed to our strategic objectives and goals that we’ve set to be more inclusive,” Thornton said. “We’ve set out on a course … to redefine what a museum should look like in terms of the way in which it provides support for our communities.”
Thornton, a museum board member since 2004, succeeds Clair Zamoiski Segal, who held the position for seven years. Segal will remain on the board and continue as co-chair of the committee responsible for selecting a new museum director, a process that is “well underway” and that Thornton said is one of the things at the top of his agenda.
And while the former director will be missed, museum operations continue smoothly, Thornton said, noting that “ultimately, the institution transcends Chris Bedford.”
In addition to finding a new director, Thornton’s priorities as the BMA’s board chair include raising employee wages, building on capital projects and establishing the museum as an institution recognized for its accessibility and inclusivity.
“I want to see us go deeper in our relationships with the community,” said Thornton, a Harford County resident. “And that community is not only Baltimore City. I’m thinking about the communities of the region — whether it’s [Anne] Arundel County, Howard County, Baltimore County or Harford County.”
The museum, located near Johns Hopkins University, opened a branch in Lexington Market in 2019 as part of an initiative to connect to area communities. Since the pandemic, the BMA Lexington Market has been closed, but it will reopen this fall once the nearly $50 million market renovation is complete.
“Here in Baltimore City, we are a majority-minority city,” said Thornton, referring to the city’s racial demographics. “We’ve worked hard over the last several years to relate more to that community. But at the same time, I’d like to think that we have a tent that is large enough that we can be inclusive.”
Thornton also plans to help further the BMA’s goals of redefining what a museum should look like.
The BMA in September received a $150,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to launch community-focused research initiatives.
“That grant would redefine for us what the museum of the future would look like,” Thornton said.
While the pandemic temporarily stalled the implementation of some projects tied to the grant, part of the BMA’s agenda and Thornton’s plans include making it feel more accessible, welcoming and less intimidating to those unfamiliar with visiting museums.
“How do we help people who have not had those experiences to really see the museum as a place that is welcoming, where they feel comfortable,” Thornton said.
Originally from Ashford, Alabama, Thornton moved to Baltimore in the 1980s due to a transfer with his previous employer, Sears Roebuck and Co., where he was a vice president. After connecting with former BMA director Doreen Bolger at a fundraising event, he decided to get involved.
“[He] clearly has the background, the education, the ability and the savvy to perform extremely well as board chair,” said Frederick Singley Koontz, an honorary trustee and former BMA board chair who has worked alongside Thornton. “I’ve seen him in action for many years.”
Since moving to Baltimore, Thornton has worked in the retail, real estate and financial sectors. He is managing director of Thorwood Real Estate Group and also serves as a member of the Harford County Planning Advisory Board. He has played a role in numerous local committees and organizations, including in his current position as chair of the Harford County Caucus of African-American Leaders.
“I know that he will do an excellent job, which will then open that door further for the museum to consider another person of color in the future,” said Cassandra Beverley, vice chair of the Harford County Caucus.
U.S. museums generally have struggled with racial diversity — a Williams College study in 2019 found the artists represented in major U.S. museum collections to be 85% white and 87% male.
As the first person of color to lead the BMA’s board, Thornton said he is passionate about continuing his advocacy for inclusion and diversity while feeling deeply appreciative of the opportunity to lead an institution such as the BMA.
“Throughout my career, I’ve adopted a strong belief that representation matters. Because it says to the folks in the organization — in this case, our patrons and our staff — that one can break whatever ceilings there are,” Thornton said. “And hopefully, in some way, my leadership will inspire others, who will see the ceiling no longer in place.”