Asma Naeem, a Pakistani-born former New York prosecutor turned museum curator, was named director of the Baltimore Museum of Art on Tuesday — the first person of color to lead the institution in its 109-year history.
The appointment of Naeem to lead Maryland’s second-largest arts institution was confirmed during a Tuesday afternoon vote by the board of trustees. She starts in her new position on 1 February.
“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. It is a conversation I intend to continue.”
The board’s decision comes after a 10-month international search with more than 200 applicants from the US and Europe. The group was narrowed to 20 semifinalists that included several candidates of color, according to board member Darius Graham, who co-chaired the search committee with administrator Clair Zamoiski Segal.
Naeem’s selection signals the board’s renewed commitment to diversity efforts most recently spearheaded by former director Christopher Bedford, who left Baltimore in June for San Francisco after six eventful and sometimes 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 for the work we’ve been doing,” said board chairman Jim Thornton. “We believe that we can rise to an even higher level than we have done in the past five or six years and become a model for museums throughout the country.”
Tuesday’s announcement also means that for perhaps the first time in majority-Black Baltimore’s history, many of the city’s largest and most prestigious art institutions will be guided by people of color.
They include the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (music director designated Jonathon Heyward); Baltimore Center Stage (artistic director Stephanie Ybarra, stepping down in April and temporarily handing the reins to interim artistic director Ken-Matt Martin); American Visionary Art Museum (Director Jenenne Whitfield); Creative Alliance (Director Gregory S. Smith), Maryland Film Festival (Director Sandra Gibson) and Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture (Director Terri Lee Freeman.)
And now, BMA.
“It was clear that Asma was the best candidate,” Thornton said. “She happens to be a person of color.”
Thornton said Naeem’s diverse background, which includes not only her ethnicity and gender, but also the religion she was raised in and unconventional work history, is a plus. This makes her extra aware of the concerns of everyone who enters the museum, from customers to employees.
“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 doctor who grew up in modest circumstances in India and Pakistan, but used education to get ahead. The family moved to the United States in 1971 when Naeem was 2 years old and settled in Towson, which she describes as “wonderful and welcoming.” Nevertheless, her childhood was not immune to the ethnic slurs that many people of color experienced.
“People would make fun of my name,” she said, “or tell me to go home to my country. There was still Islamophobia.”
Although from her earliest days Naeem had been, in her words, “infected with beauty”, she perhaps unconsciously absorbed the lesson that there were three acceptable career paths for gifted Pakistani teenagers: 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 at Philadelphia’s Temple University and earned her law degree in 1995.
“I like working with people,” she said, noting that in college she tutored students from Baltimore City Public Schools. “I’m good at building relationships and trying to offer solutions to those who are in pain.”
But during her four years as a prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, she too often found that solutions were in short supply.
Naeem still cries as she discusses a sexual-assault case she pursued: 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 him being imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital for a period of time. After the teenager 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 the young man,” Naeem said.
After moving from New York to Washington, she worked for the District of Columbia 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 out, I was hooked,” she said. “It was like I was trying to drink up the ocean. Suddenly the whole world was in front of 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, while also being a mother to a toddler (Gabriel, now 21) and 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 often responsible for executing her boss’s 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 buying only artworks created by women or had a women-centric theme throughout 2020.
Other times Bedford and the BMA were pilloried. In fall 2020, trustees announced plans to auction three masterpieces from the collection to raise $65 million for diversity initiatives. Naeem co-authored a letter to the editor in the Baltimore Sun defending the planned divestment — a sale the museum was ultimately forced to cancel.
Naeem’s supporters say she is as committed to justice 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 exhibitions, which showcased the favorite artworks of BMA security guards. Not only did the exhibit create national buzz, but other museums across the United States are now planning to mount their own exhibits.
Former BMA trustee Amy Elias came up with the idea for “Guarding the Art” after 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 ground-breaking exhibition opening in April that will explore the relationship between hip-hop and contemporary art in the 21st century, from streetwear to technology. The exhibition is organized in collaboration with the Saint Louis Art Museum, and Naeem is one of four co-curators.
Naeem said she hopes to create similar links in the future between the BMA and local cultural groups and schools dedicated to causes as diverse as classical music and climate change.
“I want to decenter the museum,” Naeem said.
“I will link arms with community organizations and march together. I believe in collaboration, in collective wisdom. We are not the only ones doing this important work.”