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A letter sent last week to the state of Maryland demanding an investigation into the Baltimore Museum of Art’s deaccessioning of three works from its permanent collection has garnered nearly 150 signatures of support. Among the most recent signatories are the art historian Michael Fried; Arnold Lehman, former Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) director and Brooklyn Museum director emeritus; and Stiles Colwill, an honorary board member and former board chair who resigned in protest of the deaccessions. Longtime docents of the museums as well as Baltimore-area artists and cultural workers have also signed on.
In addition, a new letter was sent this morning directly addressing the BMA Board of Trustees and urging them to revoke the decision. The missive came from Laurence Eisenstein, a former museum board member who led the effort to write the first letter to Maryland’s Attorney General and Secretary of State on October 14.
“As trustees, you are now in a leadership position,” Eisenstein writes. “You can correct the egregious deaccessioning errors and establish a positive precedent in which the BMA board shows careful thought, wise stewardship, and immediate action based on the new information that has been presented.”
The institution has fielded criticism from both the local and national art community in the two weeks since it announced plans to sell three paintings from its collection: Brice Marden’s “3” (1987-1988); Clyfford Still’s “1957-G” (1957); and Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper” (1986), which are together expected to bring in $65 million. The deaccessioning is intended to support staff salaries, equity programs, and new acquisitions of underrepresented artists.
Concerns span potential gaps left in the collection’s modern and contemporary holdings; allegations that the museum did not seek competitive enough proposals for the sale; and claims that its justifications for the deaccession are inadequate. The letter to the state last week also points to a possible conflict of interest with some of the museum’s curators, whose opinions were considered in the deaccession decision even though the sale of the works would partly fund curatorial department salaries.
In one op-ed, museum advisor Martin Gammon accused BMA director Christopher Bedford of parlaying well-intentioned critiques of inequalities at museums into “a wholly unrelated looting of some of their most valuable works without a compelling and defensible curatorial rationale.”
The museum’s leadership has continued to uphold the decision. In response to Gammon’s piece, BMA chief curator Asma Naeem and senior curator for research and programming Katy Siegel defended the move to sell the works in the service of an “equity-based vision.” The story of Abstract Expressionism, they argue, can still be told without the Marden and Still the museum is selling; in fact, such a narrative of modern art would be “as compelling as a standard origins story,” they say, including artists like Mark Tobey, Norman Lewis, Amy Sillman, and Mary Lovelace O’Neal.
Today’s letter from Eisenstein to the museum board cites another searing commentary piece, by art critic Christopher Knight, published in the Los Angeles Times this morning. Headlined “Baltimore Museum of Art uses COVID as cover to sell a Warhol. Floodgates open,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s indictment centers on the issue of best practices for deaccessioning art. Knight says that the BMA disregarded the American Alliance of Museums’ guidelines that deaccession decisions be made “separate from the process of deciding how to use the proceeds.”
In his letter, Eisenstein writes, “The signers of the letter fully support the goal of acquiring artwork by artists of color, female artists, and other underrepresented groups, and fully support initiatives to increase pay equity and inclusion. But there are other ways in which we can all come together to achieve these laudable goals, at the BMA and at museums generally.”
He concludes the missive by asking that the board formally stop the sale of the works before Sotheby’s upcoming Contemporary Art Evening Sale on October 28, where the Still and Marden will be offered. (The Warhol canvas is being sold privately by the auction house with a guaranteed price of $40 million.)
The BMA did not provide additional comment and referred Hyperallergic to its press statement on the matter released last Thursday. The statement denies allegations of legal issues around the sale and affirms deaccessioning as a “standard practice” that will offer “fresh opportunity for curators to reshape the narratives told within its walls and to present a fairer and more fulsome art history.”