Asma Naeem set to be first person of color to lead the Baltimore Museum of Art in its 109-year history – Baltimore Sun

Asma Naeem set to be first person of color to lead the Baltimore Museum of Art in its 109-year history – Baltimore Sun

Asma Naeem, a Pakistan-born, former New York prosecutor turned museum curator, was named Tuesday as director of the Baltimore Museum of Art — the first person of color to lead the institution in its 109-year history.

The appointment of Naeem to head Maryland’s second-largest arts institution was confirmed during a Tuesday afternoon vote of the board of trustees. She starts her new position Feb. 1.

“The Baltimore Museum of Art is one of the boldest and bravest museums in the world,” said Naeem, who is 53 and lives in Howard County. “We have started an incredible dialogue with our neighbors and community partners about what role a museum should play in an urban environment. That is a conversation I intend to continue.”

The board’s decision comes after a 10-month international search involving more than 200 applicants from the US and Europe. The group was narrowed down to 20 semi-finalists that included several candidates of color, according to board member Darius Graham, who chaired the search committee with trustee Clair Zamoiski Segal.

Naeem’s selection signals the board’s renewed commitment to the diversity efforts spearheaded most recently by former director Christopher Bedford, who left Baltimore in June for San Francisco following six eventful and occasionally tumultuous years.

It was Bedford who in 2018 hired Naeem from the National Portrait Gallery, where she headed the department of prints and drawings, and installed her as the BMA’s chief curator.

“We see Asma’s appointment as an upward trajectory of the work we’ve been doing,” board chairman Jim Thornton said. “We believe that we can rise to an even greater level than we have during the past five or six years and become a model for museums nationwide.”

Tuesday’s announcement also means that for perhaps the first time in the history of majority-Black Baltimore, many of the city’s largest and most prestigious arts institutions are being guided by people of color.

They include the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (music director designate Jonathon Heyward); Baltimore Center Stage (artistic director Stephanie Ybarra, stepping down in April and turning over the reins temporarily to interim artistic director Ken-Matt Martin); the American Visionary Art Museum (director Jenenne Whitfield); the Creative Alliance (executive director Gregory S. Smith), the Maryland Film Festival (executive director Sandra Gibson) and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture (executive director Terri Lee Freeman.)

And now, the BMA.

“It was clear that Asma was the best candidate,” Thornton said. “She just happens to be a person of color.”

Thornton said that Naeem’s diverse background, which includes not only her ethnicity and gender but the religion in which she was raised and unconventional work history, is a plus. It makes her extra-aware of the concerns of everyone who enters the museum, from customers to staff members.

“Diversity is so important,” he said. “Their lived experiences are different and that adds value to the decision-making process.”

Naeem is the daughter of a nuclear physicist and a physician who grew up in modest circumstances in India and Pakistan but who used education to advance. The family relocated to the US in 1971 when Naeem was 2 and settled in Towson, which she describes as “wonderful and welcoming.” Nevertheless, her childhood was not immune from the ethnic slurs experienced by many people of color.

“People would make fun of my name,” she said, “or tell me to go back home to my country. There was continued Islamophobia.”

Asma Naeem has been named the interim director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.  She joined the BMA as Chief Curator in 2018, after working as a curator at the National Portrait Gallery.

Although from her earliest days Naeem had been in her words “smitten with beauty,” she perhaps unconsciously absorbed the lesson that there were three acceptable career paths for gifted Pakistani teens. medicine, engineering and law.

She chose the latter, and after graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in art history and political science, she enrolled in Philadelphia’s Temple University, earning her law degree in 1995.

“I like working with people,” she said, noting that in college, she tutored students from the Baltimore City Public Schools. “I am good at building relationships and trying to offer solutions to those in pain.”

But during her four years as a prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, she found too often that solutions were in short supply.

Naeem still tears up when discussing one sexual assault case she prosecuted. A 17-year-old boy, the son of a Nigerian engineer, was a straight-A student until he was raped by an uncle. The trauma resulted in his incarceration for a time in a psychiatric hospital. After the teen was released, he went on a crime spree and eventually stood trial for armed robbery.

“I realized there was very little I could do at that point to help that young man,” Naeem said.

After moving from New York to Washington, she worked for the District of Columbia’s bar association investigating professional misconduct cases until one day, almost on a whim, she enrolled in a night art history class at American University.

“As soon as the lights went off, I was hooked,” she said. “It was like I was trying to drink up the ocean. Suddenly, the whole world was before me. I realized that making a career in museums was the way I could build relationships and work for the greater good.”

She earned her master’s degree in art history from American University in 2003 during a period when she was also the mother of a toddler (Gabriel, now 21) and was pregnant with twin daughters (Dahlia and Zahra, now 18). She earned a doctorate in art history from the University of Maryland in 2011, and three years later, joined the National Portrait Gallery full-time.

In 2018, Bedford lured Naeem to Baltimore and named her the museum’s chief curator. In that role, she was frequently responsible for executing her boss’ big ideas.

During Bedford’s six-year tenure, the BMA was rarely out of the national spotlight for long. Sometimes, the publicity was positive, as when the museum committed to purchasing only artworks created by women or had a female-centric theme for all of 2020.

Other times, Bedford and the BMA were pilloried. In the fall of 2020, trustees announced plans to sell three masterpieces from the collection at auction to raise $65 million for diversity initiatives. Naeem co-authored a letter to the editor in the Baltimore Sun defending the planned deaccession — a sale the museum was ultimately forced to call off.

Naeem’s supporters say she is as committed to equity as her former boss. But where Bedford could be fiery and occasionally confrontational, she is soft-spoken and diplomatic, in Thornton’s words, “a team player.”

She was instrumental in planning “Guarding the Art,” one of the BMA’s most high-profile exhibits, which showcased the favorite artworks of BMA security guards. The exhibit not only generated national buzz, but other museums across the US are now planning to mount their own exhibits.

Former BMA trustee Amy Elias came up with the idea for “Guarding the Art” following a brainstorming dinner with Naeem. As chief curator, Naeem was responsible for making the plan work, from recruiting guest exhibition curator Lowery Sims to providing financial stipends to the guards.

And it was Naeem who came up with the idea for a groundbreaking exhibition opening in April that will explore the relationship between hip-hop and contemporary art in the 21st century, from streetwear to technology. The exhibit is being co-organized with the Saint Louis Art Museum, and Naeem is one of four co-curators.

Naeem said she hopes to forge similar connections in the future between the BMA and local cultural groups and schools dedicated to causes as different as classical music and climate change.

“I want to de-center the museum,” Naeem said.

“I want to link arms with community organizations and march together. I believe in collaboration, in collective wisdom. We’re not the only people doing this important work.”

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