Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas on transforming the Baltimore Museum of Art

View of “Mickalene Thomas: A Moment’s Pleasure,” 2019, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo: Mitro Hood.

When Mickalene Thomas was invited to convert the east lobby, facade, and adjoining terrace of the Baltimore Museum of Art into a yearlong installation, she accepted, excited to deploy her signature vibrant aesthetic on an institutional scale. The exhibition, titled “A Moment’s Pleasure” and on view through May 2021, is the first in a series of biennial commissions calling upon artists to create site-specific works in the most accessible areas of the museum. Below, the matchless painter and patternist discusses this relational project, which aims to ground community in personal nostalgia as well as enhance drama and inclusion in art.

IT IS SO AMBITIOUS. Very exciting. Monumentous. Extremely, extremely daring. I’m hoping to create an experience that will ignite the Baltimore community and make them feel included in art. I want to reach beyond the museum’s doors, beyond its existing patronage, beyond the usual. Baltimore is hugely diverse. It always has been. And so the museum organizers and I are allowing different leaders in the city’s art community to make use of the lobby in their own practices, to curate throughout the year so that they can claim it as their own. In addition, we’ve involved Baltimore artists like Derrick Adams, Theresa Chromati, Devin N. Morris, and Clifford Owens. This is something I’m making, but I don’t want it to be something that’s just mine. I want other people to feel like the space is theirs, so they can come and occupy it. Whether they want to come and just chill, read a book, and be; whether they want to come meet a friend or an entire group—we’ll schedule it. But it’s also an artwork that functions on its own, whether it’s activated or not. It’s a hub, it’s a habitat. That’s what homes are.

I want the rooms to feel intimate and domestic, like a living room. I thought of rooms from my past, rooms I grew up in. I’m hoping to conjure the mood of a family gathering. But I also want the rooms to function the way people want them to function, depending on which iteration of the furniture they choose. That way, nothing is stationary. The furniture isn’t too heavy or difficult to move. I want people to be able to move the lighting and tables to the side and rearrange the seating. I guess the aesthetic that I’m going for is nostalgia, whatever that is for people.  

Changing the museum’s facade was very important to me. How do you shift that gaze, that parameter, when you think of changing the demographic of visitors? How do you get all sorts of people to engage and feel welcomed? Why not change the facade of the building? And that’s what we did, covering it with a vinyl mural that conveys some of the hallmarks of Baltimore architecture. I even have someone designing unique fashions for the museum staff, so that their uniforms fit the environment’s atmosphere. Every inch of the museum needs to play a role. It’s fun—it’s theatrical. I think art should be theatrical and have that drama. If there’s a desk and someone is standing there, they should be a part of that drama. So I’m just heightening some of that.

The questions surrounding why and for whom I’m making these spaces are hard because they’re so deep and personal. If you start thinking about the truth of why you’re doing these things, you have to be honest, and sometimes the answers are not always what people want to hear. It’s a vulnerable place. I made this space for people like myself. It’s not necessarily for people who look like me; it’s for people who think like me. People who have a heart like me. I’m realizing that there’s a world of opportunity to connect to so many kinds of people. In a way, I’m trying to re-create the community of my childhood. I remember, as a girl, being in rooms that were so diverse, with many types of people filled with so many different lives. It was about that heart, and we were always gathering in the living room. I think that when I started creating these places, I circled back to that longing.