For Brenda Richardson, art is her passion, a new wing her pride A BMA Original

October 16, 1994|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

In the Warhol gallery, Brenda Richardson meets her audience, 65 docents who have come to hear her wax eloquent about the Baltimore Museum of Art's bold and ambitious new wing.

She stands before them, her hair bristly short, her complexion a shade away from the white ash floors. A turquoise portrait of Liz Taylor stares back from the far wall like a friend.

"One of the things that's most important to understand is the unbelievable pressure I put on the staff," she says, her voice cracking unexpectedly with the words. "They've taken good care of this wing, this art and . . ."

Except for the screech of carpet tape being ripped from a spool nearby, the room is eerily quiet. People look away from her, gazing toward the paintings of artificial hearts and skulls and soup cans.

Brenda Richardson, Baltimore's iron maiden of art, dabs tears from her bloodshot eyes, battle-weary from the pressure of installing 157 works in six weeks, choked up about the 140 employees who helped make it happen.

In a creative world in which emotions flow freely, Ms. Richardson usually controls hers. After nearly 20 years at the BMA, she has a reputation as a powerful, passionate and autocratic deputy director and curator of modern painting and sculpture. Those images are likely to be reinforced by today's opening of the new wing for contemporary art.

No one picture -- but a gallery of impressions -- best defines her. There's the consummate professional, a perfectionist holed up in her gray office, driven by a love of art and a desire to share it. There's the arrogant micromanager, detractors say, who discounts local artists, whose personality hinders the BMA and whose decisions -- including buying 18 works by Andy Warhol -- aren't always in the best interest of Baltimore. Then there's Brenda the sister, daughter, godmother and friend, fiercely private about her life away from Art Museum Drive.

In the end, Ms. Richardson seems as enigmatic as the art she loves -- and best viewed, like the work, from a respectful distance.

"I spend my life looking at art: It's what I love to do and what I'm paid to do," says Ms. Richardson, 52. "It always sounds very banal, but the artists I've been fortunate enough to meet through my now 30-year-long career have enriched my life beyond measure. The works of art that I love and that move me teach me so much."

Art does more than teach her; it defines her, say colleagues in the field.

"If you put her in a canyon in the middle of the desert, she would be doing the same thing," says Antonio Homem, director of the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, who has known Ms. Richardson for 20 years. "Like birds who build nests through a kind of instinctive urge, she has a need to do this. . . . When people have strong beliefs and are devoted to them, what happens is they define themselves through their work. In her own way, Brenda is doing that."


Barely 15 minutes after the docent tour begins, things are growing unwieldy. Trying to assemble this many people in one space -- and silence them all -- is testing Ms. Richardson's already frazzled nerves.

She's reluctantly agreed to use the microphone, but by the time everyone reaches the Dan Flavin neon sculpture -- a ladder-like piece commissioned by the BMA for the corner where the new building meets the old -- the tour is one decibel away from mayhem.

"Do you think we should break up and wander?" she asks. "This isn't working very well."

There's a long pause, then a pleading voice from the back: "We all want to be with you."

In recent weeks, everyone has wanted to be with Ms. Richardson. Installation crews. Graphic artists. The media.

Taking wing

"I've been working on all aspects of the new wing from the beginning," she says. "It doesn't matter if it was a question of exterior materials, or the shape of the galleries, or the color of the walls, or where the electrical outlet went."

Even those who disagree with her cannot deny her dedication. Before planning for the wing began, her work habits were already legendary: the seven-day workweek, the 12-hour workday. During the last months, those days have stretched to 16 and 18 hours. She's existed on little sleep, dinners of Junior Mints, and sheer stamina. To fend off nightmares (both literal and figurative), she's kept a small notebook by her bed for concerns that come to her in the middle of the night.

"You will never get a half-hearted opinion or an inch-move away from absolute quality with Brenda," says Arnold Lehman, director of the BMA. "She is someone who is entirely committed to the field -- every bone, every tooth, every hair."

It took that level of commitment to pull this project together. Delays in construction meant the six months allotted for installation dwindled to six weeks. She was cheated out of what she needed most: contemplation time. The stress level was particularly high in the early weeks, since the flowing interior design meant art had to relate to other works, both near and far.

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