BMA's deputy director is leaving Restructuring: Brenda Richardson, curator of the vaunted Cone Collection, was vision behind the museum's West Wing.

January 29, 1998|By Holly Selby and John Dorsey | Holly Selby and John Dorsey,SUN STAFF

Longtime deputy director and chief curator Brenda Richardson will leave the Baltimore Museum of Art on Feb. 13, just four days before new director Doreen Bolger takes charge, the museum announced yesterday. Richardson's departure is part of an administrative restructuring by Bolger.

Richardson, 55, has been the museum's No. 2 administrator for 23 years and was the curator of its key holding, the Cone Collection, and the author of a major scholarly work about its early modern paintings and sculptures.

She also was the artistic vision behind the museum's largest, most visible expansion, its highly controversial West Wing, which houses art from 1945 to the present and opened in 1994.

Richardson herself was a sometimes controversial figure, known for her blunt statements, perfectionism and fierce protectiveness of the museum's collections, which she sometimes referred to with pride as "my paintings."

"Being a part of the BMA for the past 23 years has been both an honor and a privilege," Richardson said in a statement. "I offer my gratitude to the trustees and to my colleagues at the museum for their inspiring dedication and outstanding professionalism in making the BMA the great institution it is."

"Brenda was an important and valued member of our team since she joined the BMA more than two decades ago, and we will miss her greatly," said Anthony W. Deering, chairman of the board of trustees.

However, Deering added, "The board and the executive committee and the search committee had realized over time that the structure of the organization we had in place wasn't going to be appropriate."

For much of her tenure, Richardson worked side-by-side with Arnold Lehman, who headed the BMA from 1979 to 1997 and left last summer to head the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

During their joint tenure, some observers thought that Richardson ran the art side of the museum, while Lehman was the one who raised funds and dealt with the public. But they worked so closely together, their relationship seemed symbiotic.

By anyone's accounting, their years at the BMA included many successes and ended on a high note with the recent blockbuster exhibition "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum," which received critical acclaim. At a cost of $5 million, it was the museum's most expensive. It also was its third-best-attended exhibition, drawing about 150,000 visitors.

Richardson, a native of Michigan, came to the BMA in 1975 from the University Art Museum of Berkeley, where she had been assistant director. In Baltimore, she first worked as curator of painting and sculpture. In 1977, she became deputy director for art and curator of modern painting and sculpture, the position she will be leaving.

Main exhibitions

An expert on modern and contemporary art, Richardson was primarily responsible for developing more than 80 exhibitions.

Standouts among them were "Andy Warhol: Paintings 1962-1975" (1975), which was the first Warhol show to be seen in Baltimore; "Frank Stella: The Black Paintings" (1977), covering Stella's early paintings of black stripes, which were influential in the development of minimalism; and "Barnett Newman: The Complete Drawings, 1944-1969" (1979), bringing together the drawings of the great abstract expressionist master.

The deputy director also was responsible for the acquisition of about 85 percent of the works in the West Wing for Contemporary Art, which opened in 1994. Among her acquisitions were 18 major works by Andy Warhol. She also had a major hand in the 1996 purchase of the George A. Lucas collection of nearly 20,000 works by 19th-century French artists, and the 1988 purchase of the Dalsheimer collection of more than 700 rare and vintage photographs.

But her tenure was marked by controversy. As deputy director, she was largely responsible for decisions that often angered members of Baltimore's art circles.

In the 1980s, Richardson discontinued the museum's biennial show of regional art, which featured Maryland artists. She replaced the elaborate -- and familiar -- period frames on the Cone Collection's Matisse paintings with small strip metal frames. And in 1988, under her leadership, the museum sold Mark Rothko's painting "Olive over Red" for $950,000, followed by the 1989 purchase of Andy Warhol's painting "The Last Supper" for $682,000.

"In her position, having strong public relations is so important, because alienating people in a small community like this is deadly," said Walter Gomez, owner of Baltimore's Gomez Gallery.

"In the 10 years I've had my gallery, she's never set foot in it. And the arts community is not that large."

But others expressed surprise at the museum's decision. "I, for one, believe that the board of trustees and the new director have made a tragic error in judgment which will not serve the best interests of the museum or the city of Baltimore," Lehman said in a statement.

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