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 sales prices and names of galleries the art was 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, in order to expand the collection 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, which provides support in millions of 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.