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What We Can Learn From The BMA’s Recent Deaccessioning Announcement

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In 1989, the Baltimore Museum of Art deaccessioned Mark Rothko’s “Olive over Red” painting for $950,000 in order to purchase Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper,” a bright yellow behemoth featuring two copies of Da Vinci’s historic fresco printed side by side. The late Warhol masterpiece, 35 feet long, hung on prominent display in the BMA’s contemporary wing for the better part of two decades.

Although Warhol may now seem to be another established white male artist ubiquitous in museums across the country, it is important to recall where American culture and politics stood when the BMA purchased this painting by an openly queer artist. In 1989, the United States government was blatantly hostile to LGBTQI citizens, AIDS was ravaging gay communities, and American soldiers were put in prison for the crime of homosexuality. The visibility of this one painting, and its subsequent display at the center of the museum’s Contemporary Wing for two decades, was an effort to balance previous institutional biases toward the heterosexual male gaze, embodied in Matisse’s famous female nudes and Gauguin’s “Woman with a Mango.”

At that time, the BMA’s chief curator was Brenda Richardson, a queer white woman, and her investment in Warhol’s “The Last Supper” was then the largest single purchase the museum had ever made at $682,000. The decision was controversial and said to have caused a rift with the collectors who had given the Rothko to the museum, but this purchase also led to a growing relationship with the Warhol Foundation, which helped the institution acquire over a dozen more paintings well below market rate, in order to have an expansive body of work by a prominent gay artist, a distinct minority in museum collections that continues today.

Stepping back from this one event, it’s obvious that institutional choices have a huge ripple effect. But it is difficult to envision their impact without the benefit of hindsight, especially around building a progressive and diverse legacy for future generations, because museums do not currently have publicly accountable tools by which to measure the success or failure of such an act.

We can argue that the decision in 1989 to sell a Rothko to buy a Warhol is the basis for the same progressive mission recently trumpeted in numerous press releases and repeated almost verbatim in articles over the past few years, especially around recent sales meant to diversify the BMA’s contemporary collection in 2018. And we can also argue that it was a short-sighted mistake that alienated and angered the public, financially weakened the museum, and centered the global art market in the Contemporary Wing, rather than regional, female, and/or BIPOC artists who could have better represented Baltimore’s unique place in history at that time.

We can argue this endlessly because museum acquisitions and sales are still a subjective and hierarchical process; they can be sifted and spun to support a variety of conflicting agendas with no clear-cut answers. One thing we can all agree upon is that decisions to sell off works from a museum’s permanent collection can sow dissent and undermine public trust in museum leadership. These transactions are sensitive and should be undertaken with the utmost caution because a wide variety of people really care about the art in their local museum and its purported mission to perpetually house, display, and protect those objects.

 

Warhol's "Last Supper" in the BMA's Contemporary Wing

In a case of history repeating itself, Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper” is now heading back into the secondary market for a private sale at the end of October. On Friday, October 2, after a vote from the board of trustees the previous day, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced plans to sell three paintings from its collection: Warhol’s “The Last Supper” (1986), Brice Marden’s “3” (1987–88), and Clyfford Still’s “1957-G” (1957). All together, the paintings are expected to raise about $65 million. All three are well-known works, apparently selected to raise the most possible money through the smallest number of objects, an obvious commodification of culture that can never be replaced, which is a violation of deaccessioning rules set by the American Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD).

In conjunction with the sale, the BMA announced its new Endowment for the Future, described as “an ambitious financial plan that will dedicate funds for the care of the collection and allow the museum to expand its ongoing diversity and equity programmatic initiatives by enacting greater structural change within the institution and increasing access for the community.” The BMA has said it will use around $10 million of the funding from the anticipated $65 million to buy art that diversifies the collection, and place the rest in an endowment to eliminate ticketing fees for special exhibitions, stay open late one night a week, support diversity initiatives, and to give raises to employees whose salaries have been lower than industry standards for many years. While these plans are laudable, this round of deaccessioning is vastly different from the BMA’s last one in 2018 for a variety of complex reasons.

In 1989, and more recently in 2018, the BMA made the decision to sell a few redundant works in the collection and used the funds to purchase art by women and BIPOC artists, in line with the AAMD’s professional industry standards. I wrote extensively about the decision and supported it as a necessary measure for the greater good. In the past, any funding generated from works sold was allowed to be used only to purchase more art, in order to protect museums from becoming financially dependent upon selling the art they are sworn to preserve and to protect curatorial staff from being placed in a position where their choices about collections could impact their own livelihoods. Additionally, past AAMD rules were strict in order to keep collections safe during periods of financial instability or from directors and trustees unwilling or unable to take on the task of fundraising.

The BMA’s most recent deaccessioning announcement is different from before because the AAMD made a decision in April 2020 to relax its normally strict rules in order to compensate for Covid-era hardships, so museums can use funds from sales for “care of the collection,” a term that was intended for stop-gap measures like preventing layoffs and museum closures. By its own admission, the BMA is not facing any critical funding shortages, in part because it went admission-free more than a decade ago, and has not had to lay off any employees during Covid shutdowns. Critics point out that, since these sales are not financially necessary at this time, the sale feels opportunistic, designed to maximize potential revenue and avoid traditional fundraising, exploiting temporary measures designed for emergency situations by the AAMD.

Ostensibly, a museum’s board acts as a governing body to prevent public scandals, and the BMA described to Hyperallergic their October 1 trustee vote as a supermajority in favor of the deaccessioning proposal, where just two members of 37 voted against it. What is worth more consideration is that one member at the meeting, the former board chair from 2006-2011 (described in the article as an honorary, non-voting trustee which is a role granted to someone who has earned a place of significance for previous work) announced his resignation during the meeting in protest. The individual, Stiles Tuttle Colwill, worked with the museum’s former director, Doreen Bolger, to secure the museum’s finances and build the endowment from $56.2 million to $101 million, without selling off any significant works of art. Colwill’s past experience and subsequent protest should have carried serious weight with the board of trustees, but it appears to have been ignored.

Outside critics of the sale say that they support fair pay and diversity initiatives among the museum’s other goals. Their concerns are not with the stated mission, but with the lowered standards and lax practices employed in selecting these works of art, and at the museum’s exploitation of the AAMD’s recently adjusted rules. One main issue is that the selection of these three artworks are completely out of line with AAMD guidelines around redundancy, where a museum can sell a lesser valued work only when there are multiples by a single artist in the collection. A group of former BMA trustees, committee members, employees, and the general public found this process so problematic they issued a letter to Maryland’s Attorney General on Thursday, October 15, requesting that the state halt the sale of works (scheduled for October 28) to investigate alleged improprieties, a strident response to a decision that speaks directly to a violation of public trust.

Responding to the former trustees’ letter, the BMA expressed confidence that it has not broken any rules and explained repeatedly that its goal is to create an “internally equitable structure and an externally equitable and mutual relationship with its diverse publics,” which is presumably the goal of all museums, and is not in conflict with those issuing the protest.

What the museum fails to address in this statement—as well as in other articles by Research Curator Katy Siegel and Chief Curator Asma Naeem detailing the progressive goals behind the decisions—are the specific allegations around fiduciary accountability, a break from established professional norms in selecting these particular works, and a hasty timeline. In their responses, the curators have spoken to the power of diversity and the museum’s obligation to tell a variety of previously ignored stories through its art collection, but they have failed to prove how this worthy goal necessitates selling off prized cultural assets. Since the new AAMD deaccessioning rules are so vague, the museum can present its own interpretation, but it’s evident that these decisions can be completely divorced from public opinion and the critical voices asking for financial and professional accountability.

The reality is that this sale of historic artworks impacts the public, who were not consulted nor informed in the decision making process. The museum is facing a great deal of backlash and outrage about it—and from many individuals who supported their 2018 deaccessioning—because there is no discernible reason to sell off valuable cultural assets for mission-driven action items that could be achieved through traditional fundraising methods. Another reason is the museum could have selected a number of lesser objects from the collection to sell rather than these works that are dear to many longtime patrons and visitors.

Had this deaccessioning process been more deliberate and publicly inclusive, it could have shielded the museum from hostile reactions and instead cultivated public trust and support. Of course, this could have meant that the BMA would not be able to raise the quick $65 million expected from the sales later this month because accountability and consensus take time to build. However, mission-driven fundraising is the job of a museum director, not selling off works of art and treating the collection like a personal piggy bank.

In suggesting that critics of this decision are simply against progressive change and diversity, the museum presents a false either/or scenario where diversity, equity, and fair pay are somehow mutually exclusive from maintaining the significant objects from a permanent collection, which belong to the people of Baltimore. This oversimplification is an insult to those who request accountability and transparency in a process that appears to use diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) principles as a shield to silence dissent and claim moral superiority. When a powerful institution faces criticism and then weaponizes that feedback against those with less power to claim that critics are “missing the point,” this is a clear abuse of power.

 

Andy Warhol's "The Last Supper" on view at the BMA

For any museum claiming a DEI and social justice-oriented agenda, especially those with an approximately 16-million-dollar annual operating budget like the BMA, it is essential to pay employees a living wage. Right now, their security guards make an average of $13.50 an hour, but museum leadership says they will make $20 an hour by 2022, which is about $40,000 a year for full-time workers, about one-tenth the competitive salary the BMA’s current director earns. Offering liveable salaries to all employees is key to equity and diversity, because poorly paid jobs are typically held only by those who can afford them, mostly white people from middle and upper income brackets.

But there are sustainable ways for a museum to prioritize and fund employee salaries, including relaxing the rules on restricted endowments, traditional fundraising campaigns, and rigorous budget management which all could have been enacted well before the AAMD adjusted its guidelines in April. If the BMA has been on solid financial footing for the past three years, why didn’t leadership make these DEI initiatives a priority years ago?

To put this into perspective, former BMA director Doreen Bolger managed to nearly double the museum’s endowment, from $56.2 million to $101 million, without selling off any cultural assets of significance, all while acquiring historic and contemporary works from women and BIPOC artists including Nick Cave, Joyce J. Scott, Nari Ward, Sarah Sze, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Mickalene Thomas, Henry Ossawa Tanner (one of the most significant Black artists of the 19th century, purchased in partnership with Eddie and Sylvia Brown), and many others. A museum director’s job is to raise funding for mission-driven changes and increase diversity and excellence in a collection without depleting it. Selling off the art in a permanent collection should be considered the last option, not the first, and not a consideration for an institution in good financial health.

The AAMD rules around any sale of art from a permanent collection are clear on another point: museums are allowed to sell only redundant works (defined as more than one work by the same artist) and works of lesser value, in order to maintain the integrity of the collection. By most standards, none of these three works the BMA is selling fit this definition, although they have redefined “redundancy” to refer to the genre of artwork and not the individual artist, another reason that members of the general public and the museum field alike have expressed dissent and skepticism. Redefining the terms and skirting the rules in the middle of an already complex process does not build trust with the public.

The BMA’s selection of these three works is controversial given the historic rules and role of museum collections, even under the new AAMD rules. “The Last Supper” is arguably the most significant—and certainly the largest—piece by Warhol in the museum’s collection, although there are also fourteen smaller paintings by Warhol and close to a hundred drawings and prints. The Brice Marden painting is the only one the museum owns, and although they cite a series of small drawings and prints by Marden in the collection, these are in no way comparable. That Marden is a living artist also makes the sale more potentially damaging in setting a precedent, as it could impact the artist’s perception of value internationally and the museum’s credibility in collecting works by living artists.

Of the three, the Clyfford Still is the least redundant of the group, as it is the only piece by the artist in the entire collection. The artist himself gifted the painting to the museum in 1969, one of the few paintings he gave to a handful of museums in his lifetime (including the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington). That donation indicated a significant act of trust on the part of the globally respected Abstract Expressionist painter and, in many ways, his endorsement of the quality of the BMA’s contemporary collection at that time. After a robust career in New York, Still moved to the small town of New Windsor, Maryland, and lived there for the last twenty years of his life until his death in 1980. I grew up in a neighboring town, and can attest that Still’s presence as this global art star (and later, his widow) living in a brick Victorian mansion was a hallowed one in the region, so selling off this work also feels like a slap in the face to local artists and patrons.

Unlike the Warhol and the Marden, the Still painting in the BMA’s collection is the only one available to the public for viewing (without making an appointment) in the state of Maryland. When I asked how the Still could be considered redundant, the museum director and chief curator explained that they have a number of stronger works from other Abstract Expressionists, applying their new definition of redundancy within genre. It’s worth considering the sale of the Still as evidence of the BMA’s recent neglect in collecting the vibrant and diverse art of the surrounding region.

In the past four years, the BMA has purchased only two works by Baltimore-based artists, despite raising millions from its 2018 deaccessioning, and after numerous institutional claims about institutional support for the artists of this region. Coincidentally, this focus on global artists can be traced back to curator Brenda Richardson, who canceled the museum’s popular biennial show of regional art in the 1980s to focus exclusively on globally known names.

This trend was corrected by former director Doreen Bolger, who reinstated large, regular exhibitions of Baltimore-based artists through the Sondheim Prize and Baker Artist Award exhibitions (which have been dropped from the BMA’s schedule over the past few years) and oversaw acquisitions of Baltimore-based artists like Joyce Scott, Soledad Salame, Richard Cleaver, Tom Miller, Elizabeth Talford Scott, John Waters, Grace Hartigan, Seth Adelsberger, and others. The BMA currently has four excellent exhibitions on view of Baltimore-based artists: Valerie Maynard, Jo Smail, SHAN Wallace, and Elissa Blount-Moorhead, so perhaps they will realize that these regional artists, and many others, should be included in their permanent collection, so that their incredible work and message will be preserved for future generations.

 

Clyfford Still
Brice Marden

Selling art out of a permanent collection is usually controversial because a museum’s main mission is to collect and preserve the objects that tell the story of a collective (and often publicly funded) cultural legacy for future generations. Once an institution starts viewing its collection as revenue-generating assets, how does it reconcile its obligation to the artists it has collected in the past and the curators who made the decisions to collect the art? There are certain works at the BMA, the entire Cone Collection for example, which cannot be sold for any reason, but many others which were purchased and donated with an implicit promise of perpetual stewardship and care. The process of deaccessioning weakens the credibility of the institution and deprives the citizens of Baltimore of subsequent opportunities to access priceless cultural assets.

Recently, the BMA has focused on diversifying its collection through acquisitions of contemporary art, but the sale prices and names of galleries the art is purchased from are not available to the public. How diverse is a collection if it channels the majority of accessions resources to New York-based blue-chip galleries? How diverse can a collection become if 78 percent of donated works accepted in the past four years are by white male artists? Although it’s complicated, museums should consider diversity of artist-market viability and geography in their collecting practices, especially investing in the artists of their place and time, accepting donations from a variety of individuals from the region who are not wealthy, and expand the collection accordingly and in a publicly accountable way.

At this point, it’s crucial to consider Richardson’s decision to sell the Rothko in 1989. Was selling it the best choice for the institution? You can easily argue both sides, depending on your subjective viewpoint. One thing is certain: the Rothko, and, after they are sold, the Warhol, Still, and Marden, can never be returned to the people of Baltimore. Would having two Rothkos instead of one feel like too many? Could Richardson have raised the funds needed to buy the Warhol without selling such a valuable work? Do we believe that selling off works from the permanent collection is a sustainable way to promote such an agenda in 2020? Are there ways to make a collection’s diversity and employees’ fair pay a part of the bylaws and mission of the institution, set measurable goals, and fund these without selling irreplaceable cultural assets?

The BMA’s sale of these three works, as well as recent announcements around new works collected, also brings the close relationships between commercial galleries, the art market, and museums into much greater focus. Have you ever wondered why some works of art are listed for sale in galleries and art fairs, but are not available for ordinary citizens to purchase? Galleries hold the best objects for museums—or for collectors who may later donate the work to a museum—as a priority, and the reason for a standard 20 percent discount on purchases is because inclusion in a museum collection is so rare and valuable. Although many consider museums to be sacred troves of cultural history, the reality is that museums play an active and influential role in the art market, and selling work from a collection can wreak havoc for the entire ecosystem of artists, galleries, and auction houses.

The validation a museum collection offers can boost an artist’s individual market and influence other collectors to invest in the same artists and galleries and, for an emerging artist, can be a significant predictor of success. Museum purchases of major works at the height of the market functions to keep auction prices high and can create new markets for previously undiscovered bodies of work for certain galleries. At its core, the museum collection is a competitive and highly valuable resource to artists and to galleries, especially the large galleries that dominate art fairs, because it offers a permanent and public presence for the work of art, promises scholarship and visibility, and these purchases help to stabilize and inflate the art market.

Historically, selling off works from a permanent museum collection can discourage subsequent donors from giving art and money to the museum. It can lead to losses of public funding or decreases in capital fundraising, where a donor or municipality decides not to continue to fund the museum because they realize it has access to a seemingly limitless internal source of income and doesn’t actually need outside support. This can lead to important works being placed into private ownership, never to be viewed publicly again and unavailable for scholarship, and can undermine relationships with the galleries that currently prioritize museum patronage.

This process is complicated and opaque and can inspire public backlash, as we are seeing here. Any decision to sell a work from a permanent collection is a serious and difficult choice, so it’s not surprising that museums rarely sell the art they have collected and when they do, it’s mainly to clear out redundant and lesser related works in order to reduce the burden of conservation. When museums sell work from the permanent collection, it is considered a sacrifice, not a joyful plunder, and should be treated respectfully, even when museum leadership claims to have “the moral imperative” to make such a decision.

When you start to unravel this slippery slope, and you realize how much potential revenue exists in every museum’s collection, it’s hard not to view it as a savings account for special projects and agendas. At the BMA, the collection comprises around 95,000 objects, including many that have never been on display or can only be shown for a brief period of time for archival reasons. It’s easy to see how the collection could beckon with a seemingly limitless store of resources for new initiatives and projects that may be more urgent than a protected public archive of cultural objects. But once you sell one or two, what’s to stop you from selling more? And once you start selling more, especially in the name of paying your employees a decent salary or serving as a beacon for diversity and equity in an elitist, homogeneous art world, where do you draw the line?

At its core, a museum has an obligation to tell the story of a place through a diverse range of excellent objects, and this includes a sacred trust to care for the art collection, making it  available through exhibitions and other forms of scholarship to the public who provides support in tax dollars. This collection should attempt to reflect the diversity of Baltimore; the city the museum serves is 63 percent Black. The museum should tell complex stories that promote justice and equity and support the best artists of our time and place through its collection, so that this work can be utilized by future generations of patrons and celebrate the rich history and artistic legacy being built right now.

Why are major museum collections across the country still hovering around 85 percent white and 87 percent male, despite all of the virtue signaling of the past decade, recent proclamations that Black Lives Matter, and pledges to collect work from certain previously neglected demographics? To understand this, we need to look more closely at the hierarchical, complicated, and deliberately opaque acquisitions process that most museums employ, a process which is subjective, political, and designed to strategically prioritize a few curators and collectors, as well as the blue-chip galleries that offer the kind of status and viability that many museum boards and curators seem to need.

When you look more closely, the process for museum collections—and deaccessions—is subjective and secretive, and at odds with any stated mission of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The process for acquiring works of art and selling them off is a complex pyramid of curator hierarchies and personalities, committees of collectors and professionals, and culminates in a vote of approval from the board of trustees, who tend not to challenge the decisions of museum staff and committees.

Collection management usually starts with curators with lesser titles conducting research, visiting galleries and studios, and reporting to higher-up curators—who can dismiss their selections based on subjective taste or the simple statement that they have never heard of X artist—and, in the BMA’s case, an accessions committee which is said to be made up of professionals, scholars, and collectors but whose members are not disclosed publicly. In addition, the BMA does not share how much they have paid for any single work of art nor the gallery or auction house it was purchased from.

Have you ever wondered why museums list donors’ names on wall labels and why this is relevant to the viewing public? Although the information is easy to skip over, it’s a clear indication of institutional values and who holds power within such structures. The accessions and donations process was designed to cater to influential collectors, in order to encourage them to continue to give money and art to the institution. It’s a certification of taste and influence, a clear indication of who controls what goes into a collection and, for any museum claiming a DEI agenda, this process needs to shift radically to become transparent and democratic.

Although the BMA has built a national reputation in recent years for significant exhibitions of nationally known artists of color like Mark Bradford and Mickalene Thomas and for selling off works by white male artists in order to purchase works by artists of color, women, and LGBTQ artists, they have not made any discernible structural power shifts around the museum’s central mission—to collect, preserve, and exhibit the most significant works of art of our time and of the past. It would be naive for us to expect significant and long-lasting structural changes if collecting decisions continue to be made in secret to prioritize a few wealthy and powerful voices over everyone else’s.

 

The Baltimore Museum of Art

I pay close attention to museums because I think they have the potential to play a much greater role in diversifying and democratizing the art world, in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, as well as an artist’s market and geographic location. Especially now, museums have an opportunity to support the social justice-oriented agenda that many have recently proclaimed, especially after this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. And they can do so by strategically collecting, and perhaps selling off, works of art in a way that takes the kind of risk that Richardson did in the 1980s, and to invest heavily in artists who have the ability to reflect our shared values and to advance progressive causes and narratives.

However, one central aspect of museum stewardship is trust, not just the public perception cultivated in national news stories or the ambitious goals stated in a press release, but actually seeing that the values it claims to have are cultivated through systemic change, transparency, and through the sharing of institutional resources strategically within the region from which they receive support.

After they make their way through a multi-step pyramid of presentations and committees, the artworks deemed “important” enough to collect are believed, by those who donate them as well as curators who select them, to be excellent cultural artifacts and, in the case of Baltimore, a public resource, not a commodified good. Works are collected also to balance out the collection that already exists and to fill omissions, both in contemporary and historic collections. When you consider the immense buying power of a museum, and its ability to create and catalyze a market around any artist or group of artists it decides to champion, it’s a stunning disappointment to realize that most museums, the BMA included, tend to prioritize the same fifty or so globally anointed contemporary artists represented by New York blue-chip galleries. This is a failure of vision, in terms of considering the power of museums to uplift entire communities through their purchases, not out of obligation but out of the desire to tell the authentic stories of a place through the work of the excellent artists who live and work there.

As a writer, I have consistently criticized museums for valuing objects over people, for hoarding wealth and resources rather than sharing them equitably with employees, communities, city and state, and for not properly valuing the artists of their place and time. I have also consistently celebrated museums that prioritize the artists of their region, pay a living wage, and use resources generously, creatively, and democratically.

One obvious first step is to make the acquisitions process transparent, to include artists and arts professionals from the region in decisions to sell or buy works of art, to publicly disclose accession committee members, and to report how much is spent on individual works of art and where the money goes. Museums should also consider the historic, economic, and social implications of these decisions from the perspective of the community that surrounds it and actively supports it with tax dollars.

I applaud the BMA for making the decision to raise staff salaries, in order to pay a competitive wage. I support any museum for authentically pursuing diverse and equitable narratives through its collection. However, selling off cultural assets should be the last, rather than first, solution to a problem, and any funding used from the sale of cultural artifacts needs to be measured and accounted for publicly, with key provisions guaranteed in museum bylaws to uphold these values through accompanying budgets.

I completely support the vision of diversity, equity, and inclusion that the BMA has claimed for itself, but I’m paying attention to the bottom line, in terms of where it is investing the majority of its resources and the difference between making a broad public claim and actually following through with the details, which are complex and political and impact artists and communities differently than curators and staff. I believe there is hope for the future and this museum can play a significant role in revolutionizing the way all museums become more welcoming and publicly accountable. However, the BMA is not capable of fulfilling this ambitious mission until they decolonize the very structures of power by which the most important decisions are made: in acquiring and selling off the singular and unique cultural assets in its permanent collection.

 

Header Image: Tavares Strachan's "In Broad Daylight" installed on the front of the Baltimore Museum of Art

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