The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) kicked off its centennial celebrations with a bang in early February, when local collectors Tom and Nancy O’Neil announced they would give 24 contemporary photographs from their holdings to the institution. The O’Neils’ gift is the first of what the BMA hopes will be many that are made in response to a call put out to its supporters to help strengthen its permanent collection. The gifted photographs include works by Rodney Graham, James Welling, Edward Burtynsky, Dawoud Bey, and more, with a particular focus on works with an environmentalist edge.
“The sublime beauty of the natural world and the destructive impact of short-sighted industrial interventions in the environment is a powerful thread in the O’Neil’s collecting,” says Kristen Hileman, the BMA’s curator of contemporary art. “Equally, they have assembled an impressive and sensitive group of portraits, which provide a sweeping sense of individual experience at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. These themes come together to provide moving documentation of very important facets of contemporary life.”
Beginning in May, selections from the works gifted by the O’Neils will go on view in the permanent collection galleries of the BMA’s contemporary wing, which reopened in 2012 following an extensive renovation. The first to go on view will be Graham’s black-and-white photograph of an upside-down tree trunk, Cedars, Stanley Park (1), from 1991.
The gift showcases the O’Neils’ distinctly international tastes. In addition to three pieces by the Canadian industrial landscape photographer Burtynsky, the BMA now has works by Cuban artist Abelardo Morell, German photographer Thomas Kellner, and the Burmese-born American artist Chan Chao in its collection. Also among the donated works is a photograph by Zwelethu Mthethwa, a South African photographer who was arrested in 2013 and accused of murder (his trial is due to resume later this year).
The O’Neils’ donation adds up to the largest trove of photographs the BMA has received since 1988, when dealer and collector George M. Dalsheimer gave more than 700 works from his collection to the institution. The museum’s recent acquisitions have also included photographs by Rineke Dijkstra, Harry Callahan, and Mickalene Thomas.
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