Admiration and animosity Going: Brenda Richardson's iron integrity earned the BMA's departing deputy director both respect and ill will.

January 31, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

During Brenda Richardson's 23-year career at the Baltimore Museum of Art, she was known for her strong principles and her unwavering adherence to them.

She will leave the deputy director's job on Feb. 13, as part of a restructuring initiated by new BMA director Doreen Bolger, with those qualities intact. They have brought her both admiration and animosity, and nothing demonstrates that better than the Affair of the Matisse Frames.

In 1986, there was a renovation of the wing containing the great Cone collection of modern art, including its 42 Matisse paintings. As part of the reinstallation, Richardson removed most of the traditional frames the Cone sisters had put on the Matisses and replaced them with narrow metal strip frames.

Many in the museum-going public were outraged. They said that the frames gave the rows of paintings a "postage-stamp" effect. A leaflet at the entrance to the gallery sets forth Richardson's defense of the strip frames as appropriate to modern art and in keeping with Matisse's preferences.

"With artists like Matisse there is in a frame both purpose and moral conviction," she writes. And she adds, "The [BMA] assumes custodial responsibility not just for the physical work of art but for the integrity and the 'ethic-aesthetic' of the artist."

That she would make the frames an issue of integrity and moral conviction reveals her devotion to those values. But to many, she seemed to put vaunted principles above respect for the Cones' taste and regard for the public's opinion.

The ill will caused by that and other issues during Richardson's tenure has kept a good part of the arts community from fully appreciating her strengths.

She is a formidable, internationally recognized art historian, curator and connoisseur, especially in the field of modern and contemporary art. The shows for which she has been responsible, and the catalogs accompanying them, have done credit to the BMA and Baltimore. They include shows of Frank Stella's early black paintings (1977), Barnett Newman's drawings the photographic works of British artists Gilbert & George (1984), Scott Burton's furniture (1986) and the just-closed show of the art of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

And her estimable book on the Cone sisters and their collection was awarded the 1985 George Wittenborn Award of the Art Libraries Association of North America, which honors outstanding art publications.

One of the purposes for which the museum hired her in 1975 was to enhance the collection of contemporary art, and she has done so. If one can object to the exterior of the West Wing for Contemporary Art, opened in 1994, the inside contains a fine collection of art since 1945, and Richardson was responsible for bringing most of it here.

Some disagree with her admiration for Warhol and the 1994 purchase of 18 of his works. But right now it looks as if he's one of the most important artists of the second half of the 20th century.

During her tenure, whole collections have come to the museum, too, including the Levi collection of contemporary sculpture and the Dalsheimer collection of photography. She also played an instrumental part in negotiating the museum's purchase in 1996 of the Lucas collection of 20,000 works of 19th-century French art.

As deputy director for art and curator of modern painting and sculpture, Richardson worked closely with director Arnold Lehman from his appointment in 1979 until his departure last year. While the museum greatly expanded its facilities and collections during the period, it failed to get the great collection of contemporary American painting owned by Robert and Jane Meyerhoff of Baltimore County. In early 1987, it was announced that the Meyerhoffs would donate the collection, containing hundreds of paintings by Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and many others, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Some blame Lehman and Richardson for "losing" the Meyerhoff collection, but that's not a legitimate complaint. When the collection grew to be one of the most important collections of contemporary art in the world, it became virtually inevitable that a museum of great international visibility and prestige, such as the National Gallery, would get it.

But Richardson, along with Lehman, must bear considerable responsibility for the museum's poor relations with local artists in recent years. First it dropped the regional biennial exhibition. Then it initiated a much smaller Maryland Invitational show, which was supposed to be annual but soon became sporadic. And it closed the sales and rental gallery, which had shown regional as well as national artists.

All those decisions contributed to the perception of the museum as aloof and distant. The museum can point to scores of regional artists who have been included in shows of the past two decades, but such statistics do not dissipate the perception.

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