The Washington Post

Board chair wants art museum to be inclusive

James Thornton reflects on own experience, how it helps him in Baltimore


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 leading 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, 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, Ala., Thornton moved to Baltimore in the 1980s because of a transfer with his previous employer, Sears Roebuck, 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 caucus.

U.S. museums in general have struggled with racial diversity — a Williams College study in 2019 found the artists represente­d in major U.S. museum collection­s to be 85 percent White and 87 percent 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.”

 ?? Kenneth K. Lam/baltimore Sun ?? James Thornton is the first person of color to be board chair of the Baltimore Museum of Art. “Throughout my career, I’ve adopted a strong belief that representa­tion matters,” Thornton said.
Kenneth K. Lam/baltimore Sun James Thornton is the first person of color to be board chair of the Baltimore Museum of Art. “Throughout my career, I’ve adopted a strong belief that representa­tion matters,” Thornton said.

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