In a letter yesterday, Clair Zamoiski Segal, the chair of the board of trustees at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), said she has “grown increasingly troubled” by the backlash against the museum’s deaccessioning of three works from its collection to fund staff salaries and equity initiatives.
In the past, she told Hyperallergic, the BMA “placed outsized value on the work of white, male artists and established systems of access that do not engage, invite, or make welcome the widest group of individuals.”
“To suggest that the absence of these three works breaks the public trust omits the reality of the many individuals whose trust we have not yet won,” wrote Zamoiski Segal, who has served as board chair since 2015, in her letter. “We have not yet won that trust because we, along with many other museums, have been operating within a system that has excluded too many for far too long.”
It has been a tumultuous two weeks for the Baltimore institution. Since it announced the sale of three works — Brice Marden’s “3” (1987-1988); Clyfford Still’s “1957-G” (1957); and Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper” (1986) — more than 150 museum supporters, including former trustees, have signed an open letter requesting a formal state investigation into the deaccession. Three honorary board members have resigned in protest, and prominent voices in the field, including Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight and museum advisor Martin Gammon, have penned severe commentary pieces in opposition.
Their concerns are manifold, including the loss of iconic works from the museum’s collection and the alleged breaching of deaccessioning best practices by liquidating works to fund staff salaries, an operational expense. These are aggravated by fears of a larger trend toward the monetization of institutional collections in the wake of COVID-19, especially following the temporary loosening of some deaccessioning guidelines by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD).
With less than a week left before the sale, the scandal shows no signs of abating. This morning, the Baltimore Times reported that Charles Newhall III, an honorary board member and former board chair who resigned in protest of the deaccession, is planning on withholding about $50 million in pledged funds along with another donor. (A BMA representative told Hyperallergic, “While we appreciate that Charles Newhall is expressing that he had intended on such a pledge, this was not negotiated or recorded with the museum.”)
In Zamoiski Segal’s letter yesterday, she argued that “there is nothing short-sighted nor nefarious about deaccessioning.”
“It is a regular practice, undertaken by every art museum in the United States,” she writes. “Assertions otherwise are simply a means of inflaming controversy and serve only to maintain the status quo of museums as repositories of riches serving the elite alone.”
The public auction of the Still and Marden pieces next Wednesday at Sotheby’s, and a private sale of the Warhol painting also brokered by the house, are expected to bring in $65 million. Approximately $54 million will establish an endowment for the direct care of the collection, yielding a projected $2.5 million in annual income for salaries of curators, registrars, and conservators, among others, as well as expenses like artwork storage and transportation; $10 million will be used to acquire works by women and artists of color.
The endowment will allow the museum to increase its annual operating budget from $18 million to $20.5 million.
“It is that increase that allows us to plan for and implement equity pay raises for frontline workers and others whose salaries are currently not at market rate,” Zamoiski Segal said in an interview with Hyperallergic.
“So, we are fully consistent with guidelines and there is not a quid pro quo for the curators involved,” she said, responding to accusations of conflicts of interest with the staffers who devised the deaccession plan — BMA chief curator Asma Naeem and senior curator for research and programming Katy Siegel, along with input from associate curators at the institution.
There was a “misconception that there was a single debate about the deaccession,” Zamoiski Segal told Hyperallergic. The process unfolded over the course of over six months; the selected works were vetted by leadership first and then in separate meetings by the accession committee, executive committee, and full board.
However, many of those who oppose the deaccession have been particularly incensed by the specific trio of works selected. In his op-ed, for instance, Gammon notes that the Marden canvas is the only painting by the artist in the collection. He rebuts claims by Bedford that Marden’s oeuvre will be accurately represented by the 16 works on paper still held by the museum, 15 of which are small etchings or screenprints, not unique works.
The three paintings, some critics believe, are the pillars of the BMA’s collection of 95,000 works. Arnold Lehman, a former director of the museum from 1979 to 1997 who helped acquire the Warhol, analogized the works to “the columns that are in front of the Baltimore museum.”
To Zamoiski Segal, however, these assessments amount to putting these artists on a pedestal, and are “grounded in the idea that artworks by artists with bold-faced names are automatically irreplaceable or iconic” rather than on an understanding of the BMA’s collection.
“As an example, two-thirds of the BMA’s holdings are prints, drawings, and photographs,” she told Hyperallergic. “So, when we say that Brice Marden’s work is more actively animated and expressed through the 16 works on paper that we hold by the artist that is not a deflection. It comes from an understanding of the particular depth and strength of our own collection.”
“As for the Warhol, we have 90 other works by the artist and the decision to deaccession this one meets the traditional standard of collection redundancy. The notion that it is irreplaceable is subjective,” she added.
In her letter yesterday, Zamoiski Segal also stressed that 95% of the museum’s board voted in favor of the sale. The fact that a supermajority of voting board members supported the decision, she said, is “a simple fact that many commentators have omitted in their narration of events to serve their own purposes.” (Of the 37 members voting, two were against deaccessioning the Still and Warhol, and one against the Marden.)
She likewise rejects intimations that the board is eschewing its fundraising responsibilities. Over the last two and a half years, she told Hyperallergic, it has raised or contributed $16 million in endowment funds; $9,750,000 in private funding for building renovations; and additional funding that has kept BMA’s full staff employed during the pandemic. But the financial crunch brought on by the virus means the museum “must take advantage of the different avenues available to us,” she wrote in her letter.
When asked about the motivations of detractors, Zamoiski Segal responded that she believes “there is discomfort, among some, with the BMA’s vision of change.”
Amy Frenkil Meadows, vice president and executive committee member of the board of trustees, echoed her sentiment.
“There is a fundamental issue that is being lost in the conversation about the BMA’s plans and it is about race and its treatment in this country,” Frenkil Meadows told Hyperallergic. “People often say they are for diversity and inclusivity, until efforts around those issues touch on something that affects their lives or forces them to confront their own perspectives or willingness to change.”
“I think it is important to consider the voices in this conversation and the voices that have seemingly once again been omitted,” Frenkil Meadows continued. “The BMA’s vision is about building a foundation for the future we want. We cannot continue to hold on to the standards of the past, because they no longer serve the vast majority of our community,” she said.
In spite of ongoing criticism, the museum continues to stand by its decision.
“Personally, I am deeply motivated to address the injustice within our practices and structures and to do more than simply say we need change,” Zamoiski Segal told Hyperallergic. I want to enact it, hold it, and be it. If that means deaccessioning three works of art that our curators deemed appropriate, I’m comfortable with it.”