When Asma Naeem learned that then President Donald Trump’s portrait would be hung in the National Portrait Gallery, she knew she wanted to do something to counter the optics it created. So she placed a portrait of one of Baltimore’s most well-known native sons, the late rapper Tupac Shakur, directly across from it.
It was one of the many ways she tried to make the museum, where she was a curator at the time, reflect America’s diverse history.
“I was on a mission to add as many multicultural [works] to better understand our country’s past and future,” she said.
Moments like that are exactly why the Howard County resident left her job as a criminal prosecutor in Manhattan to pursue a career in the museum world.
“I kept realizing that as much as I wanted to be a public servant and effect change, I knew my role on this earth was to help people, but I knew I could not do that at the DA’s office,” she said.
Now serving as the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator, Naeem is proving the pivotal role that museums play in fostering important conversations around hot-button issues like cultural competency and the racial reckoning.
“They are one of the few places left where you can have the exchange of ideas with people of different class, race and sexual representation,” said the 52-year-old Highland, Maryland resident who has been the chief curator with the museum since joining in 2018. She was named interim co-director of the museum with Christine Dietze, the BMA’s chief operating officer in March.
“It is all done in a way that encourages reflection,” said Naeem, a graduate of Loch Raven High School, Johns Hopkins University and Temple University Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia. “It is not like our current problematic saturation of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Instead, you are able to move through at your own pace and look at objects made from individuals who probably come from different backgrounds from you, and you’re able to reflect what it’s like to live on this planet.”
Naeem is part of a growing number of BIPOC women leaders within the museum industry. Jenenne Whitfield, a Black woman, began her position as the new director of the American Visionary Art Museum earlier this month. Maria Rosario Jackson, a Black Mexican American, became 13th chair of the National Endowment for the Arts last year. Eunice Bélidor became the first full-time Black curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2021 when she was named its curator of contemporary art.
Overall, BIPOC people in intellectual leadership positions — those who oversee curatorial and educational staff — in museums increased from 15% to 20% from 2015 to 2018, according to a study by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in partnership with the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums. During that same time, BIPOC curators increased from 12% to 16%.
Despite the recent progress, museums will continue to face an image problem common in the industry, said Leslie King-Hammond, professor emerita from the Maryland Institute College of Art.
“The difficulty museums have had was that they were founded on a culture of privilege and entitlement. Only certain types of people were invited,” King-Hammond said. “The irony was that the majority of the works that were collected were supported by the communities, villages, plantations and their voices are not included — either on the wall or as supporters and founders of traditions that we so highly regard now.”
Naeem, who immigrated to the United States with her family when she was two years old from her native Pakistan, is aware of the BMA’s history; the museum did not purchase its first piece of art from a Black artist, a painting by Sam Gilliam, until the 1970s. The museum purchased its first piece by a Black woman — a sculpture Elizabeth Catlett — in 1993.
“I’m looking very closely at our history and doing better right now,” she said.
Naeem thinks she can usher change in the art world. She found it hard to do as a Manhattan assistant district attorney in the 1990s working on misdemeanors and felonies.
During her time there, police targeted minor crimes such as vandalism, jaywalking and loitering in an attempt to prevent other more serious crimes under a “broken window system” policing strategy. It disproportionately targeted minorities, many whose lives were disrupted
“There were a lot of systemic issues working as a criminal prosecutor that I realized that working in the DA’s office that I could not overturn,” she said.
While working in the DA’s office, she repeatedly found herself going to museums in her spare time.
“I was finding nourishment in art — seeking it as a refuge,” she recalled.
Her passion for the arts intensified when she left the DA’s office in 1999 and started working in Washington, D.C., in the Office of Bar Counsel. By day she investigated attorney misconduct. At night she took art history classes at American University.
“I was so happy in those classes,” she said. “I was the one in the front of the class taking notes, soaking it all up.”
She later enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park to get a doctorate in art history while being “very pregnant” with twins.
“It was a blur, to be completely honest. It was a challenging time,” she said. “All I could keep thinking about was a dream of being with objects and bringing in folks who had not been in museums before — the types of folks I worked with in the DA’s office.”
Babar Shafiq, her husband of 24 years, distinctly remembers what life was like then.
“There was this fire in her that was different from the one I saw when she was at the DA’s office; she loves art and she cares about artists and feels a deep sense of responsibility,” said Shafiq.
Naeem worked at the National Gallery of Art in 2010 and then again in 2013 before she was hired permanently at the National Portrait Gallery as a curator in 2014.
“It was an exciting time because the Portrait Gallery was trying to redefine what it meant to be an American. Portraiture was seeing a resurgence in the art world. Some of the most exciting art of the day were coming from artists with multicultural backgrounds looking into portraiture,” she said referencing names like Kara Walker and Titus Kaphar.
When Naeem started at the BMA in 2018 as its chief curator — a position that was later endowed as The Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown chief curator — it was a full circle moment for her. The BMA was the first museum she ever visited. She also interned at the museum in 2004.
James D. Thornton, the BMA’s 26th board chair and the first person of color to lead its board of trustees, said the museum is “fortunate” to have her and the “unique lens” that she brings to the position. He hopes she will make the museum more relevant.
“She has a sensitivity that we value and appreciate,” he said. “We’ve been exceptionally pleased with her contributions as chief curator. We think they will resonate with a wide audience.”
King-Hammond has known Naeem since her days at the National Portrait Gallery and “nearly did backflips” when she heard she was coming. King-Hammond’s former student Amy Sherald painted the portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama, which was unveiled in 2018 and hung in the National Portrait Gallery when Naeem was the curator.
Naeem’s leadership role at the BMA is needed at a time when the museum industry is at a crossroads, King-Hammond said.
“The museum industry is probably going through similar catharsis that the whole world is going through. We are adjusting to the changes necessary for survival. It requires us to rethink things of the past that were done in the past that were not done well,” King-Hammond said.
Naeem said she wants to continue the work of her predecessor, former director Christopher Bedford, who worked to make the BMA’s collection more diverse, although he ruffled feathers with his idea to sell other works of art to accomplish that goal.
“I am eager to continue moving forward, including emphasizing the contributions of artists of color and women throughout art history in our collecting practices and exhibitions. We plan to continue to broaden the stories we tell about art, to recognize that influences on artistic production do not adhere to geopolitical boundaries and ours is truly an interconnected world.”
In her short time at the BMA, Naeem has already recruited the famed curator and art historian Lowery Sims out of retirement to help mentor the museum’s security guards, who chose the featured works in the popular “Guarding the Art” exhibit that ran from March to July. The exhibit was conceived during a conversation between BMA Trustee Amy Elias and Naeem.
Sims, who has had stints with The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Museum of Arts and Design, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art — where she was the museum’s first Black curator — said she was fascinated by “Guarding the Art” when Naeem contacted her because of Sims’ extensive interactions with security guards at museums throughout her 50-year career.
“There was a hell of a lot more to guards,” Sims said. “They were artists, poets. They all really had an interest in the public and the art that they were learning. I thought this was a great opportunity to reconnect.
“The exhibition wasn’t just the guards picking the work. They had access to all the components of the exhibit. That was particularly impressive. It was like a wholistic experience. They had a full sense what it meant to put that art on the wall,” Sims said. “Conversely, I had conversations with the security staff, and they felt that their colleagues in other departments felt that they knew who they were as individuals.”
The guard exhibit and other efforts — including a pledge to only purchase pieces by women artists for an entire year — were met with support and criticism. Naeem wasn’t surprised by the critics.
“I believe that vigorous, respectful public discourse benefits us all. Engaging in discussions where there are multiple perspectives and healthy differences of opinions may be difficult, but they are generative in the long run, with deeper, richer, more creative outcomes,” she said.
Sims said it is advantageous to bring in professionals like Naeem to the museum industry.
“That is a good thing,” she said, adding that sometimes art historians do not understand management. “It has been a boon for museums to attract a person like her.”
Naeem’s favorite exhibits she has brought to the BMA
Valerie Maynard: Lost and Found
March 1, 2020-January 3, 2021
Naeem calls the six-decade retrospective exhibit by the “prolific, beloved” Baltimorean “significant.”
The exhibit from the printmaker and sculptor included work from the artist’s studio, including her “No Apartheid” series from the 1980s and 1990s.
Salman Toor: No Ordinary Love
May 22, 2022-October 23, 2022
The queer Pakistani American has “bravely” painted his world at a time when his sexuality would put him in a vulnerable position, according to Naeem.
The exhibit features more than 45 paintings and works on paper made between 2019 and 2022. The exhibit is also accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, including essays by Naeem as well as writers Evan Moffitt and Hanya Yanagihara.
The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century
March 26, 2023-July 9, 2023
Hip-hop was one of the most formative musical genres in Baltimore city, according to Naeem.
The exhibit is a celebration of the genre and the way it has influenced other industries, such as fashion.
“There is going to be fashion and a focus on the ways in which hip-hop has become a canon,” she said. “Whether you know hip-hop of not, you probably love a work by a contemporary artist who is exploring some of the themes found in hip-hop.”
Isaac Julien’s Baltimore
July 14, 2019-January 5, 2020
Naeem called the exhibit that revolves around the cinematization of video art “beautiful work that we have in our collection.” The video exhibit featured actor and director Melvin Van Peebles.
“It explored the relationship between Afrofuturism and the precarity of Black bodies,” she said.