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In 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) made headlines when it deaccessioned seven artworks by prominent white, male 20th-century artists to fund the diversification of its collection, announcing an ambitious plan to funnel money from the sale of the work into a dedicated acquisition fund for contemporary art by underrepresented makers such as women, Black, Indigenous, and self-trained artists. The museum auctioned off paintings by Andy Warhol, Franz Kline, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski at Sotheby’s that May and sold important works by Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg privately through the auction house. In total, the BMA made $16.1 million from the sale of the seven works.
Over the past three years, the museum has used the funds from the sale to acquire 125 works by a diverse group of 85 artists and artist collectives, 71 of whom are represented in the museum’s collection of about 95,000 objects for the first time. Twenty-six of these recent acquisitions are now on view at the BMA in the exhibition Now Is The Time: Recent Acquisitions to the Contemporary Collection, on view from May 2 to July 18.
The show culls its title from Martin Luther King Jr.’s pronouncement in his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech that explains “now is the time” to realize the promises of democracy and overcome racial injustice as a nation. The works on view include pieces by well-known artists such as Barbara Chase-Riboud, Thornton Dial, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, and Betye Saar, as well as contributions by emerging artists such as Firelei Báez, Theresa Chromati, Jerrell Gibbs, and Laura Ortman. It is the first time that many of the works have been displayed since their acquisition.
“Now Is The Time offers an opportunity to engage our audiences in our vision and our work, and to bring them into the process for this essential and critical reassessment,” BMA director Christopher Bedford told Hyperallergic. “At the same time, it’s a chance for the public to connect with an incredible cadre of artists who are not only diverse in their identities and backgrounds but represent an extraordinary spectrum of vision, technique, material use, training, and creative approach.”
The exhibition’s wall text is unconventional in that it overtly asks what the canon is, who gets to define it, and why it should be corrected. The text reads:
The right to judge which artists belong in the canon is an exercise in social power. Museums participate by hosting exhibitions and purchasing art for their collections, thus arguing that an artist merits a place in art history. Curators suggest which art should be valued by their own museums, but those decisions depend on precedents set by other curators, art historians, and critics; and collectors and art dealers connected to powerful institutions and financial backing.
The wall text also explains that the BMA deaccessioned works in its holdings in 2018 to fund the acquisition of new work, including the examples on view. “The disparity in price between the seven works sold and the 125 acquired speaks to ongoing racism and sexism as reflected in the market’s uneven valuation of artists,” it continues.
Bedford has been one of the driving forces behind the museum’s recent acquisition programs along with chief curator Asma Naeem and senior programming and research curator Katy Siegel. He explained to Hyperallergic that “the history of art we know — and that which is communicated by museum collections and in standard textbooks — is incomplete and based in faulty, discriminatory methodologies.”
“The BMA is engaged in a research-intensive examination of its collection that aims to both produce a richer account of art over time and a different methodology for assigning artistic value,” he continued. “Rather than being simply additive, our methods interrogate the very basis of art history to tell new and more expansive stories.”
In advocating for the 2018 acquisitions, the exhibition reads as a bid for public support after the significant backlash that the museum faced for a more controversial deaccessioning plan that it announced — and, due to the criticism, abandoned — in the fall of 2020. Taking advantage of the loosening of the US Association of Art Museum Directors’ deaccessioning guidelines during the pandemic, the BMA shared plans to sell three important works by Clyfford Still, Brice Marden, and Andy Warhol at Sotheby’s to raise funds for the care of the collection as well as programmatic diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, including increasing staff salaries.
The works, which were predicted to garner $65 million, seemed to have been selected more for their sky-high market value than for reasons of redundancies in the museum’s holdings, which is a typical justification for deaccessioning. (To the contrary, Still’s painting is the only work by the Abstract Expressionist painter and local Maryland artist in the collection.) While some praised the BMA, many argued that selling these significant works to fund operational costs should have been a last resort. After the resignation of a former board chair and two honorary board members, as well as critical op-eds and open letters, the BMA reneged on its plan. However, the museum has now secured relatively modest donations for the DEI initiative from a more conventional fundraising campaign.