This afternoon, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) announced that it will suspend the sale of three paintings in its collection. The decision comes only hours before the Sotheby’s contemporary art auction this evening in which two of the works, Brice Marden’s “3” (1987-1988) and Clyfford Still’s “1957-G” (1957), were slated to go under the hammer. A private sale of the third work, Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper” (1986), was to be brokered by the auction house; it has also been halted.
“The decision was made after having heard and listened to the proponents and the detractors of the BMA’s ambitious Endowment for the Future and after a private conversation between the BMA’s leadership and the Association of Art Museum Directors,” said a statement from the museum’s leadership and board of trustees.
The museum has faced a flood of backlash against the deaccessioning plan in the last three weeks, including the resignation of two honorary board members, threats from two philanthropists to withdraw pledges, and a spate of critical op-eds and open letters.
The latest missive came earlier today, when a group of former presidents of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) sent a letter to BMA board chair Clair Zamoiski Segal urging that the museum reconsider the sale. Among its 12 signatories as of noon today were Maxwell L. Anderson, former director of the Whitney Museum; Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; and Arnold Lehman, director emeritus of the Brooklyn Museum.
Laurence Eisenstein, a former trustee who drafted an open letter against the deaccession that has garnered over 200 signatures, told Hyperallergic:
We feel this decision affirms the essential roles that artworks, publicly-accessible collections, and museums play in providing knowledge of the past, offering opportunities for reflection and learning in the present, and laying the groundwork for positive transformation in the future.
“We look forward to working with the BMA’s trustees and staff to rebuild community relationships and strengthen diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that will ensure the BMA remains relevant and responsive to its community going forward,” he added.
In its statement announcing the halting of the sale this afternoon, the museum said that it had previously discussed the deaccession with AAMD, and had secured the organization’s support.
“The BMA was in touch with the AAMD leadership early this fall in advance of announcing its plans for the Endowment for the Future. In private and public statements, the AAMD affirmed that the BMA’s plans were in alignment and accordance with the resolutions it passed in April 2020,” the statement reads. “However, subsequent discussions and communications have made clear that we must pause our plans to have further, necessary conversations.”
The combined public and private sales of the paintings were expected to bring in $65 million to fund staff salaries, equity programs, and new acquisitions of underrepresented artists as part of the BMA’s new “Endowment for the Future” initiative.
In its statement, the museum affirmed its commitment to the plan.
“We believe unequivocally that museums exist to serve their communities through experiences with art and artists. We firmly believe that museums and their collections have been built on structures that we must work, through bold and tangible action, to reckon with, modify, and reimagine as structures that will meet the demands of the future,” the statement reads. “We do not abide by notions that museums exist to serve objects; we believe the objects in our collection must reflect, engage, and inspire the many different individuals that we serve.”
“Our vision and our goals have not changed. It will take us longer to achieve them, but we will do so through all means at our disposal. That is our mission and we stand behind it,” it concludes.
“We do not abide by notions that museums exist to serve objects; we believe the objects in our collection must reflect, engage, and inspire the many different individuals that we serve.” What are we to make of such lofty sentiment, at once arrogant and condescending, that completely misses the underlying point that the objects they propose to deaccession do precisely that? Museums, especially those that regularly acquire art works, also exist to preserve objects, not sell them. They exist to serve their visitors and constituencies, not just for a fraught moment but for generations to come. Yes, Baltimore Museum Board members, you should continue to acquire work that represent more fully, more inclusively, the community you serve. And the Museum needs to pay its staff a living wage. If the Board cannot manage that, then they should not be monetizing the collection to also buy obscenely expensive works of art. Instead of issuing non sequiturs as policy the Board might consider the fact that deaccessioning is widely viewed–by artists, donors and the public at large–as a breach of public trust. If funds are tight for acquisitions (and you have already spooked potential donors who might have considered donating major works of art–including those by women and artists of color) then maybe start with your own community who might yet be inspired by the Clyfford Still, the Brice Marden, the Andy Warhol. Your job is additive, recursive and preservative; it is not the job of a formerly “permanent collection.”
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