“The ways in which we can readily relate to so many of our audience members, who are moved by hip-hop or aspects of their own culture that they don’t always see reflected in museum programming, is of vital importance to me,” Naeem said.
She remembered feeling a combination of awe and intimidation on her own first visit to her hometown museum as an undergraduate at the neighboring Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in art history and political science. She went on to get a law degree from Temple University in 1995, focusing on domestic violence while working for the Manhattan district attorney’s office. In 2000 she began prosecuting ethics allegations against lawyers at the Office of Bar Counsel (now called the Office of Disciplinary Counsel) in Washington, an arm of the D.C. Court of Appeals.
She found “trying to right the wrongs of the world” through the legal system to be draining, however, and began a career shift. “Art history, as well as the civic space of the museum, offered a kind of limitless combination of how to shape a public good,” said Naeem, who received a master’s degree in art history from American University in 2003 and a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in 2011 while continuing to work in law and raise three children with her husband, Babar Shafiq, an orthopedic surgeon.
One of Naeem’s top priorities in her new job will be helping the museum regain visitors lost during the Covid-19 closure. In the 2023 fiscal year the B.M.A. expects to reach 75 percent of its pre-Covid attendance. Other priorities include the retention and compensation of museum staff, who voted last summer to form a union, part of a wave of unionizing efforts at museums across the country. Thornton, the board chairman, said that the museum’s leadership has met three times with the union’s negotiating team.
“Asma’s obviously close to people across the institution that have felt they needed a union, and her past legal experience will be helpful to us as we continue to work through a collective bargaining agreement,” he said.
In 2020, the museum’s leadership pulled back from selling three of its blue-chip paintings for $65 million, funds largely intended to create an endowment for better salaries. Current and former museum directors had criticized this plan to use funds from the sale of art, known as de-accessioning, for operating costs rather than for acquisitions and the direct care of the collection, in keeping with the Association of Art Museum Directors’ guidelines. Thornton said this experience underscored the importance of fund-raising by Naeem and the board to accomplish the institution’s lofty salary goals.