Asma Naeem, a Pakistan-born former New York attorney-general turned curator, on Tuesday appointed the Baltimore Museum of Art director — the first person of color to lead the institution in its 109-year history.
Naim’s appointment to head Maryland’s second-largest art foundation was confirmed during a Board of Trustees vote Tuesday afternoon. She started her new position on February 1.
“The Baltimore Museum of Art is one of the most daring and courageous museums in the world,” said Naim, 53, who lives in Howard County. “We have begun an incredible dialogue with our neighbors and community partners about the role a museum should play in the urban environment. This is a conversation I intend to continue.”
The council’s decision follows a 10-month international search involving more than 200 applicants from the United States and Europe. The pool was narrowed down to 20 semi-finalists that included several candidates of color, according to board member Darius Graham, who chaired the search committee with trustee Claire Zamoyski-Segal.
Naim’s selection signals the board’s renewed commitment to diversity efforts recently led 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 Naim from the National Portrait Gallery, where she will head the prints and graphics department, and He installed her as the chief coordinator of the BMA.
“We see Asma’s appointment as an upward trajectory of the work we’ve been doing,” said Chairman Jim Thornton. “We believe we can rise to a higher level than we have in the last five or six years and become a model for museums nationwide.”
Tuesday’s announcement also means that for perhaps the first time in the history of majority black Baltimoreans, many of the city’s largest and most prestigious art institutions are directed by people of color.
Among them are the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (appointed Music Director Jonathan Hayward); Baltimore Center Theater (artistic director, Stephanie Ybarra, stepped down in April and temporarily handed the reins to interim artistic director Ken Matt Martin); the American Visionary Art Museum (directed by Jenenne Whitfield); Creative Alliance (Executive Director Gregory S. Smith), Maryland Film Festival (Executive Director Sandra Gibson) and Reginald F. Lewis Maryland Museum of African American History and Culture (Executive Director Terry Lee Freeman).
And now, BMA.
“It was clear that Asma was the best candidate,” said Thornton. “She’s just a person of color.”
Thornton said Naim’s diverse background, which includes not only her race and gender but the religion she was raised with and an unconventional work history, is a plus. It makes her more aware of the concerns of everyone who enters the museum, from customers to staff.
“Diversity is very important,” he said. “Their experiences are different and this adds value to the decision-making process.”
Naeem is the daughter of a nuclear physicist and a physician who grew up in humble circumstances in India and Pakistan, but used education to advance. The family moved to the United States in 1971 when Naeem was two years old and settled in Towson, which she describes as “wonderful and welcoming.” However, her childhood was not immune to the racial indignities that many people of color suffer.
She said, “People were making fun of my name, or telling me to go back to my country. There was continuing Islamophobia.”
Although Naeem was from her early days “fascinated by beauty”, she may have unconsciously internalized the lesson that there are 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 BA in Art History and Political Science, she attended Temple University in Philadelphia and earned her law degree in 1995.
“I love working with people,” she said, noting that she tutored students from the Baltimore City Public Schools in college. “I am good at building relationships and trying to provide solutions for those in pain.”
But during her four years as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, she often found that solutions were in short supply.
Naeem is still in tears when discussing one of her sexual abuse cases: a 17-year-old boy, the son of a Nigerian engineer, was an ordinary student until his uncle raped him. The shock led to his imprisonment for a period in a psychiatric hospital. After the teen was released, he went on a crime spree and was eventually tried for armed robbery.
“I knew there wasn’t much I could do at that point to help this young man,” Naim said.
After moving from New York to Washington, she worked for the District of Columbia bar investigating cases of professional misconduct until one day, almost on a whim, she enrolled in a night art history class at American University.
“As soon as the lights were out, I got hooked,” she said. “It was like I was trying to drink ocean water. Suddenly, the whole world was in front of me. I realized that working in museums was the way I could build relationships and work for the greater good.”
She earned her MA in Art History from American University in 2003 during a period when she was also the mother of a young boy (Gabriel, now 21) and was pregnant with twins (Dahlia and Zahra, now 18). in Art History from the University of Maryland in 2011, and three years later, she joined the National Portrait Gallery full time.
In 2018, Bedford lured Naim to Baltimore and appointed her chief curator. In this role, she was often responsible for implementing her boss’s great ideas.
During Bedford’s six-year tenure, the BMA was rarely out of the national spotlight for long. Sometimes the publicity has been positive, as when a museum committed to buying only artwork created by women or had a female-focused theme throughout 2020.
Other times, Bedford and the BMA have been ridiculed. In the fall of 2020, the trustees announced plans to sell three masterpieces from the collection at auction to raise $65 million for Diversity Initiatives. Naeem co-authored the article Letter to the editor at The Baltimore Sun Defending the planned succession annulment – a sale the museum eventually had to cancel.
Naim’s supporters say she is as committed to equality as her former boss. But where Bedford can be fiery and at times confrontational, she is soft-spoken, diplomatic and, in Thornton’s words, a “team player”.
She was instrumental in planning “Guarding the Art”, one of the BMA’s most popular exhibits, which showcased the favorite artwork of BMA security guards. Not only has the exhibit generated national buzz, but other museums across the United States are now planning their own exhibitions.
Former BMA curator Amy Elias came up with the idea for Art Custody after a brainstorming dinner with Naim. As principal curator, Naim was responsible for carrying out the plan, from hiring guest curator Laurie Sims to providing stipends for the keepers.
And it was Naeem who came up with the idea to open a groundbreaking exhibition in April that explores the relationship between hip-hop and contemporary art in the 21st century, from street fashion to technology. The exhibition is jointly curated with the St. Louis Museum of Art, and Naim is one of four co-curators.
Naeem said she hopes to forge similar connections in the future between the BMA and local cultural groups and schools dedicated to issues as diverse as classical music and climate change.
“I want to cancel the museum status,” Naeem said.
I want to link arms to community organizations and march together. I believe in cooperation and collective wisdom. We are not the only ones doing this important work.”