THE BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART is expanding its contemporary art department, hiring Jessica Bell Brown and Leila Grothe as associate curators. They are joining a growing team of female curators at BMA led by chief curator Asma Naeem and fortified by senior research and programming curator Katy Siegel.
A New York-based writer, curator, and art historian, Brown recently served as consulting curator at Gracie Mansion Conservancy in New York, where she organized “She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York, 1919-2019” (2018-19). A collaboration with the city’s First Lady Chirlane McCray, the exhibition presented 60 works of art by 44 female-identifying artists at Gracie Mansion, the official mayor’s residence.
From 2016-2017, Brown was a Museum Research Consortium Fellow in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). During her time there, she helped organize the 2017 retrospective “Robert Rauschenberg Among Friends”; co-founded #ArtSpeaks, a museum-wide series of gallery talks; and contributed to MoMA publications. Brown is a co-founder of Black Art Incubator, a public programming project staged at Recess during the summer of 2016. Earlier in her career, she worked as a curatorial assistant the Brooklyn Academy of Music (2013) and a programming fellow at Creative Time in New York (2012).
Brown holds an M.A. in art history from Princeton University and has a bachelor’s degree in art history from Northwestern University. A doctoral candidate in the Department of Art & Architecture at Princeton University, the focus of her Ph.D., is post-war abstraction in the post-civil rights decade, exploring the work of artists such as Sam Gilliam and Joe Overstreet.
She has contributed to a variety of catalogs and publications. Critical essays by Brown have considered the work of a number of contemporary artists, including Lubaina Himid, Senga Nengudi, Eric Mack, Sam Gilliam, Jennifer Packer, and Wilmer Wilson IV. Her writing has also appeared in Flash Art, Hyperallergic, and The Brooklyn Rail.
Brown recently spoke about the practice of Amy Sherald in “Amy Sherald: In the Studio,” a video about the artist’s work produced by Hauser & Wirth. Sherald, who is on BMA’s board of trustees, paints portraits based on photographs she takes of her subjects.
“Black Americans were using photography as a means to assert who they are in the world thinking about photography as a democratic medium that allows one to disengage in a sociopolitical power dynamic that places black people and black bodies on the margins,” Brown says in the video (her remarks begin at 2:27). “Photography became a way to sort of reclaim that and I think that that is what is happening in Amy’s practice.”
THE HIRING OF BROWN comes at a dynamic time at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Since joining the museum in 2016, BMA Director Christopher Bedford has made diversity and inclusion a priority in the institution’s programming and acquisitions. Recent shows have focused on Mark Bradford, Maren Hassinger, Jack Whitten, Meleko Mokgosi, Ebony G. Patterson, and photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick. Current exhibitions present the work of Melvin Edwards, Isaac Julien, Joyce J. Scott and Elizabeth Talford Scott.
“Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art,” a major exhibition featuring Bradford, Whitten, Edwards, Martin Puryear, Alma Thomas, Norman Lewis, Julie Mehretu, Lorna Simpson, Shinique Smith, Kevin Beasley, and Charles Gaines, among many others, is also currently on view. Next year, BMA plans an expansive series of exhibitions, installations, and public programming dedicated to women artists.
The artists and exhibitions the museum is presenting increasingly reflect the surrounding community and society at-large. The more expansive approach is beginning to show up in its curatorial staffing. Naeem was appointed chief curator in August 2018. She holds a post endowed by Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown, African American philanthropists based in Baltimore. A new generation of curators is also contributing. The contemporary art department is supported by inaugural Meyerhoff-Becker Curatorial Fellow Cynthia Hodge-Thorne, who is organizing a major Mickalene Thomas installation that is part of the 2020 women’s programming, and Souls Grown Deep Foundation Fellow Stella Hendricks, a Baltimore-born Towson University student.
BROWN’S APPOINTMENT was announced alongside news that Leila Grothe is also joining the museum as an associate curator of contemporary art. Previously, Grothe was associate curator at the Wattis Institute at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco (2014-19). She has held prior posts at 500 Capp Street Foundation in San Francisco (2015-2016), Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University (2010-2012), and Creative Time in Dallas (2009-2010). Her experience also includes serving as the collections manager for the Alexandra Bowes Collection (2014-2015) and the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection (2013-2014). Selections from the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection are the basis of BMA’s “Generations” exhibition.
“In their work as curators, educators, and scholars, Jessica and Leila have both shown incredible prescience in bringing to light the voices and innovations of a wide range of artists spanning the 20th into the 21st century. Their diverse and complementary areas of research and passion for expanding our collective understanding of the relationship between art and society will prove essential to the BMA’s ongoing success,” Bedford said in a statement.
“They join the BMA at moment of widespread change and great creative ferment, as we continue to place major emphasis on diversity, equity, and access as the critical lenses for all we do at the Museum. We look forward to working with Jessica and Leila in this mission.”
Both Brown and Grothe officially begin working at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Nov. 18. CT