In the world of museums, “deaccession” is a divisive term. Describing the practice of removing objects from a permanent collection, it conjures difficult moments in the history of institutions, such as the Detroit Institute of Art’s controversial proposal to sell its art in the wake of the city’s bankruptcy. More recently, cultural workers across the nation have demanded that leadership deaccession works in order to stave off pandemic-related layoffs and other losses that continue to rock the sector.
The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) is one institution heeding the call to put its human resources above its material ones. Last week, the museum announced a decision to sell three paintings by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still, and Andy Warhol to bolster staff compensation and implement access and equity programs.
The triad of canvases — Warhol’s “The Last Supper” (1986), Marden’s “3” (1987-1988), and Still’s “1957-G” (1957) — will be offered in an auction and a private sale at Sotheby’s over the next few weeks, and are expected to rake in a whopping $65 million.
A total of $10 million will be funneled into the museum’s acquisition fund to increase representation by women and artists of color, while $500,000 from the sale will go toward a plan for diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) initiatives. Approximately $54.5 million will be used to endow a fund to support salaries for 46 staff caring for the collection, including curators, registrars, conservators, preparators, art handlers, administrative staff, and fellows. Projected to generate $2.5 million per year, the fund will also allow the BMA to invest in other access efforts, such as expanding evening hours and eliminating admission costs fo certain exhibits.
Earlier this year, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) lifted penalties on institutions choosing to access restricted funding sources, including endowment funds and income generated by deaccessioned artwork. The organization, which represents 227 museums in North America, had always stood firmly against deaccessioning artworks for any purpose other than new acquisitions, claiming that doing so would pressure museums to monetize their collections.
The BMA’s move to sell the paintings is part of its “Endowment for the Future” financial plan, developed during the museum’s six-month-long shutdown this year and in accordance with the loosening of AAMD’s guidelines. (Last month, the Brooklyn Museum became the first major US institution to take advantage of the temporary halt in sanctions, putting up 12 paintings at Christie’s to help cover collection care.)
The Baltimore institution has been able to weather the COVID-19 crisis without laying off or furloughing staff so far. Christopher Bedford, the BMA’s director, told the New York Times that the plan was “a vision-based initiative, not desperation-based.”
But Bedford recognized that more remains to be done to ensure inclusivity.
“The board and I recognize that to truly live up to our mission and values, we need to continue to allocate resources toward diversity and equity measures and that those measures need to address both the substance and content of our collections, exhibitions, and programs, as well as the concerns of the people that create and engage with them,” said Bedford in a statement.
However, some have spoken out against the museum’s decision. Brenda Richardson, a former BMA curator who acquired the Warhol for the museum, told the Washington Post that she was “nothing short of horrified” by the news. Kristen Hileman, a former senior curator and head of the BMA’s contemporary department, said she supported the museum’s deaccessioning of seven works in 2018, but does not feel that the most recent move is justified.
Speaking of the Warhol work specifically, Hileman told the Post, “It took courage and conviction for Brenda Richardson to center the discourse of contemporary art at the BMA around a queer artist in the late 1980s and early ’90s.”
The three works, says the museum, were selected “to ensure that the narratives essential to the understanding of art history could continue to be told with depth and richness.” Excluding the deaccessioned pieces, the museum holds 15 paintings, eight prints, three drawings, and several books and portfolios by Warhol, as well as 17 works by Marden. However, there are no other works by Still in its collection.
Appearances on the auction block are rare for Still. The majority of the artist’s work resides in institutions, and the artist was known to be notoriously resistant to selling his paintings. In 2011, four paintings sold for over $114 million at Sotheby’s, with the proceeds going to benefit the Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum’s endowment fund.
In an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun opposing the deaccession, Hiram Woodward, Curator of Asian Art Emeritus at the Walters Art Museum in the city, says a museum’s “primary function is to provide experiences.” The curator believes the museum’s remaining holdings of Marden’s work, all of them on paper, will never match “the experience of a painting 5-by-7 feet in size” that it plans on selling.
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As a former museum director, curator and educator, I (Chris Crosman) am appalled at this most recent move to deaccession key works of art from the Baltimore Museum’s permanent collection. Well, no longer is the collection so permanent which is increasingly the case for art museums, large and small including the Brooklyn Museum and the Everson Museum at Syracuse University. These institutions have apparently weighed their own needs against the field as a whole. Deaccessioning is often a breach of public trust, disposing of works that earlier curators and directors fought to acquire and in many cases promised donors and artists that their legacies would be held in perpetuity. The Warhol, although a late work, is hugely important to an understanding of Warhol’s complex, nuanced achievement as well as pointing to personal struggle as a Gay man raised in the Catholic faith. Brice Marden is still very much alive; his painting is among those widely considered among his very best. Perhaps, Baltimore should offer him a “cut” of the sale, which will undoubtedly exceed whatever the museum or its donor paid at the time it was acquired. Deaccessioning the Still is unconscionable. His work is does not exist outside a very few public collections and a very few museums along the entire eastern seaboard. Moreover, he is something of a native son, residing for much of his later life on a farm in Maryland. His influence, direct and indirect, among such artists as Baltimore’s own Grace Hartigan and countless local artists, including women and artists of color, is as undeniable as it might be difficult to locate without having his work on view at the Baltimore Museum. Losing this painting is an insult to them and an affront to the people of Baltimore.
That said, Baltimore’s attempt to build a broader based and inclusive collection and to diversify its institutional identity in a city where the demographics cry out for social justice and inclusion is unquestionably necessary. But, with respect, that is why the Museum has a Board of Directors. If they call for institution changing revision and re-vitalization they need to be able to enact those lofty goals on behalf of the museum through fundraising and realistic, substantive planning. The collection, especially key works that provide the institutional basis for its continued existence as a tax exempt organization, are the last places the Board should be looking to address its own deficiencies. Museums tend to evolve more slowly than other institutions but adding to the collection, diversifying its staff and paying them living wages is not the job of the permanent collection except in the sense of motivating its supporters to engage, step-up and act responsibly toward its community, now and for the future. Selling one’s children is not the answer.
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