Asma Naeem will serve as the Baltimore Museum of Art's next director. Photo by Christopher Myers.

After a 10-month international search, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees announced today that Dr. Asma Naeem has been appointed to be the museum’s new director, the first person of color to lead the institution.

Naeem has been the museum’s interim co-director, alongside Christine Dietze, since June 2022, and the museum’s Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator since 2018. She succeeds Christopher Bedford, who was director from 2016 to 2022 and left the BMA in June to lead the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

According to the museum, Naeem is widely recognized for her advocacy of women and underrecognized artists, for her scholarship in contemporary and American art, and for her vision and work in collections diversification. She will begin her new role as the BMA’s Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director on Feb. 1, 2023.

“The BMA is committed to bringing diversity and equity into every aspect of its work, from the exhibitions and programs we develop to the works we acquire to our internal working culture,” BMA board chair James Thornton said in a statement.

“Since she joined the museum in 2018, Dr. Naeem has been integral to shaping this vision and to the strides we have made to realize it,” Thornton added. “Her dedication to this effort and her distinct perspective on how we can continue to create change made her the ideal choice to lead the BMA into the future. We are inspired and excited by the possibilities for our beloved museum with Dr. Naeem as our new director and look forward to our work together.”

Naeem, 53, will be the 11th director of the BMA, which has come to be known for organizing ground-breaking exhibitions and programs that question traditional art historical narratives and forefront new and underrepresented voices.

The museum is actively working to expand the breadth of the collection with more works by women and artists of color, and earlier this month announced the acquisition of 162 historic and contemporary works that support the closing of critical gaps across the full range of its collection departments. In recent years, the BMA has also completed several major renovations, most notably the Stanley Mazaroff and Nancy Dorman Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs and Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies, which both opened in 2021.

“It has been my great pleasure to work with the BMA team and board over the past four and a half years,” Naeem said in a statement. “I am excited to now lead the BMA as we continue to explore, experiment, and envision what a museum can be and mean to its immediate community and broader networks of artists and partners.

“As we move forward, there is an incredible opportunity to bring a greater depth of local and global voices into the dialogues about the history and evolution of art, about museums as community spaces, and about the relationship between internal culture to external experience—and in doing so create meaningful change in the field,” Naeem added. “I am looking forward to working with the exceptional team here and with our many current and future collaborators.”

Since she joined the museum’s staff in 2018, Naeem has organized a wide range of exhibitions, including on the work of such artists as Candice Breitz, Isaac Julien and Valerie Maynard, for which she also edited a publication surveying the artist’s career with curator of print, drawings, and photographs Leslie Cozzi. Her exhibition “Salman Toor: No Ordinary Love,” which is accompanied by an expansive catalogue, recently closed at the BMA and will travel to three additional museum venues across the country.

Naeem’s upcoming curatorial projects include an exhibition on the social and art history of the hip hop movement both as an American and global phenomenon, titled “The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century” and opening at the BMA in April 2023 before traveling to the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Before joining the BMA, between 2014 and 2018, Naeem served in multiple curatorial roles at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where she expanded its collection with both acclaimed and underrecognized artists and developed several exhibitions.

Two award-winning exhibitions, recognized by the Smithsonian and the American Association of Museum Curators, include a retrospective of the work of Titus Kaphar, and “Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now,” an exploration of the silhouette in historical and contemporary art works through the lens of gender and race. Accompanying the latter was a richly illustrated catalogue organized by Naeem and published by Princeton University Press.

Before entering the museum field, Naeem had an extensive career in law. She served as an Assistant District Attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, where she focused on domestic violence. Her last position as an attorney was as an Assistant Bar Counsel at the Office of Bar Counsel in Washington, D.C., where she investigated and prosecuted cases involving ethics allegations against attorneys in national and international matters.

“I very much look forward to seeing Dr. Naeem continue to shape her vision as the new director of the Baltimore Museum of Art and to witnessing the ways in which she will positively influence museum culture,” said Thelma Golden, director and chief curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem, in a statement.

“I have watched Dr. Naeem work to change the field,” Golden continued. “She is a thoughtful and innovative scholar, whose personal mission has been to bring forward and uplift the voices of artists who have traditionally been overlooked and understudied. Her passion for illuminating new narratives in the history of art is equal to her commitment to community and to ensuring that museums are serving their publics in meaningful ways.”

Naeem was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and immigrated to the United States as a young child with her parents. She grew up in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. She holds a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Maryland, an M.A. from American University, a J.D. from Temple University, and a B.A. in art history and political science from the Johns Hopkins University.

Naeem has lectured and written widely on contemporary art, social equity and power, identity and migration, American art, the Asian diaspora, and museum studies. She recently wrote for the exhibition catalogue “Art and Activism” at Tougaloo College, interweaving the local and national histories of social justice with objects in the world-class art collection at the historically Black college in Jackson, Mississippi.

In a separate letter to museum members, Thornton said Naeem has served “phenomenally well” as chief curator since 2018.

“Throughout the search process, Asma stood out as a candidate not only for the exceptional work she has already done at the BMA but for her clarity of vision,” he said.

“She sees opportunities for how the BMA can explore, experiment, and envision what a museum can be and mean to its community, to artists, and to local partners. She values the artistic excellence for which the BMA has long been known and the ground-breaking exhibitions and programs that forefront underrepresented voices that we have undertaken in recent years.

“Most importantly, Asma loves this museum, its staff, its members, and all the people who seek out the art in our galleries. Asma respects what the BMA has meant to the community since its founding, and she sees the BMA’s incredible potential for the future.”

“As we continue to work to provide diverse representation to our community, it’s wonderful to have someone so uniquely qualified to take the helm,” Thornton said. “We are excited to begin our museum’s next chapter together.”

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.