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The BMA spent $2.57 million on art by 49 women in 2020. Guess how many are from Maryland?

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I have a confession to make. After fifteen years as an arts writer, I still do not understand the art market, especially institutional collections.

It’s not as if I haven’t tried. I’ve researched the primary and secondary art markets, followed auctions, and interviewed a slew of curators and collectors—in their homes, on stages, in articles, and podcasts. I’ve attended art fairs and exhibitions all over the world. I have co-hosted a speaker series to explore the process of collecting art in Baltimore. I have worn cute shoes at fancy New York art parties with legit celebrities and I’ve driven Mera Rubell all over Baltimore in my Subaru. You would think that I would be on the same page as our major collecting institution in Baltimore, but the truth is I am not. I do not understand their “art math.”

After a year where the Baltimore Museum of Art announced, to great fanfare and publicity, that it would be purchasing art exclusively by women in 2020 in order to “rectify centuries of imbalance,” they sent out a final recap in late December.

In a press release, the BMA announced the acquisition of 65 works by 49 female-identifying artists for $2.57 million. To put this amount into context, it’s about five times their usual budget for collecting. Much of the money was raised by deaccessioning art in 2018 with the stated goal to diversify the collection, that is, to purchase art by women and BIPOC and LGBTQI artists who have been statistically underrepresented in their encyclopedic collection of approximately 95,000 objects, which continues to hover around 96 percent white and male

I would like to officially state that I’m thrilled that the museum has collected art by women, in 2020 and in any other year, and the selections named in the press release are fantastic additions. However, I am confused about how the museum defines “diversifying a collection,” why they didn’t collect a lot more art by women at lower price points (the average 2020 price is $40,000 per object), and why they selected so few Baltimore- and Maryland-based artists.

 

Chief Curator Asma Naeem with Baltimore-based artist Valerie Maynard. The BMA purchased several works on paper and a small sculpture from the artist in 2020.
The museum has not said whether the collection’s 96% white male demographics has changed at all, nor if that was the goal of the 2020 Vision initiative to collect work exclusively by women.
Cara Ober

Diversifying a collection means that a museum is going to purchase work by the artists who have historically been left out of the collection, not for some sort of politically correct quota system, but to better represent our collective human existence and history. In November 2019, a BMA spokesperson told Forbes that the 2020 initiative to buy works only by women is about “working to shift the scales within its collections, acknowledging that women artists are still underrepresented in the museum field and within museum collections.” 

This sounds admirable but now that the initiative has ended, it seems impossible to know if the BMA accomplished this stated goal of “shifting the scales” and what criteria can be used to measure its success or failure. The museum has not said whether the collection’s 96% white male demographics have moved at all, nor if that was the goal. I do not see any statistical results, or mention of diversity in price point, medium, geographical location, and/or time period, all criteria that would help to measure how much more diverse the BMA’s collection is in 2021 versus 2019.

If diversifying the collection is strictly a qualitative goal and the ratio of women to male artists is irrelevant, all the rhetoric around “shifting the scales” is hype, a publicity stunt. Perhaps the objective was simply to acquire the best pieces of art by diverse female artists within a certain budget? This seems like a solid goal, one that all museums should support every year until women and other underrepresented artists account for over 50% of the collection. It shouldn’t be viewed as radical or particularly newsworthy, except in comparison to current gender demographics in major American museums where collections are still 87% male and 85% white. If most major museums are investing in works by underrepresented artists in an effort to diversify their collections, why isn’t it working? The art math isn’t adding up.

The BMA released a list of names of the artists whose work was collected, and it includes Theresa Chromati, Loïs Mailou Jones, Betye Saar, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Laura Aguilar, Zackary Drucker (with A.L. Steiner), Martha Rosler, and others. In the statement, the director said it represents “the widest-ranging group of works to enter the BMA’s collection yet… As we continue to develop our collection, we remain focused on rectifying critical omissions of works by artists who are also women, Black, Indigenous, and persons of color from across the diaspora, within our own holdings and across art history more broadly.”

This is a feel-good statement, but seems intentionally vague. It does not offer any measurable criteria, statistics, or specific comparisons to past initiatives to diversify the collection at the BMA or at other museums. How many purchases are necessary in rectifying the museum’s critical omissions in a significant way? How much money is needed? How do we know it is the “widest-ranging” group ever collected? Based on the information released, it is impossible to tell if and when these historic omissions are rectified, an issue that deserves to be taken seriously.

Without offering any quantitative criteria, the BMA’s stated goal for diversification of its collection functions like a blank check for shopping at the world’s most expensive art galleries and art fairs, and unrestricted travel to do so, which is ok as long as the investment can be assessed in a publicly accountable way. Did the $2.57 million include travel costs for the director and staff? I can only assume that the objects acquired from across the world were visited in person before the decision to purchase was made.

Loïs Mailou Jones, "Untitled (Two Women)" (1945). The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from the Pearlstone Family Fund and partial gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. (image courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY) collected by the BMA in 2020

At all collecting institutions, when curators are doing their jobs correctly and given the proper agency to do so, every work acquired should diversify it in a meaningful way, filling previous gaps and exclusions. I am curious how the BMA’s recent efforts are different from its own past initiatives to strategically include historic and contemporary works by artists who are not white and male.

We can look back to the variety of young, female, and BIPOC artists included in its 2012 reopening of the contemporary wing and the purchase of historic works by Black American artists including Henry Ossawa Tanner and Walter Henry Williams, with an established and ongoing record that goes back decades to Warhol’s “The Last Supper,” purchased in 1989, as evidence of the BMA’s ongoing push to diversify its permanent collection with women, artists of color, and LGBTQI artists.

In October I inquired about the demographics currently measured in the BMA’s collection, and was given records that go back to 2017. The stats revealed a consideration for race and gender but not historic time period vs. contemporary, geography, market presence, medium, gallery affiliation, or price point, which are all issues of diversity and omission the collection should strive to address in the future. There’s also an issue of gifts and donations, a prominent way that the museum acquires art. For me, the math doesn’t add up here because the majority of donations to the museum continue to prioritize the work of white male artists, with the museum reporting about 60% of donations by white male artists between 2017–2020.

 

Works purchased by the BMA in 2020: Joyce J. Scott, "Hip Hop Saint, Tupac," 2014; Oletha Devane "Saint for My City," 2009, and Valerie Maynard, print from the "Lost and Found" series, 1989

You’ve been waiting patiently so I will answer the question I raised in the headline. The answer is three. This year the BMA purchased art from three Maryland-based artists, to a grand total of four purchased in the four years that Christopher Bedford has been the director (including Stephen Towns).

The BMA’s 2020 purchases include a print by Joyce J. Scott, two sculptures and works on paper by Valerie Maynard, and a sculpture by Oletha DeVane. They are all fantastic artists whom I adore and I applaud these additions, although I would have recommended a large glass or beaded sculpture from Scott, since the museum already owns a series of her prints and a few smaller sculptural works. I would also have recommended purchasing one of Maynard’s larger sculptures, in particular the one featured on the cover of the BMA’s member magazine a few months ago.

 

Art by Valerie Maynard on the cover of the BMA member’s magazine

 

I am proud that art by these particular artists will be preserved for future generations of visitors to the BMA. However, the total amount of money invested back into the state of Maryland’s creative economy and the small number of local artists included is abysmal. Considering the vast richness and diversity of artists and galleries working in the region achieving national acclaim, three Maryland-based artists feels like a huge opportunity lost, especially because there are so many local artists whose work is being collected and shown by other museums in other cities, artists poised to reach much higher levels of success, especially with the BMA’s endorsement and investment.

Our spending habits are the clearest indication of our values, and in this case, spending a tiny, almost laughable amount of the museum’s acquisition budget in this region sends a direct message. The BMA is a non-profit 501(c)(3) institution and it receives several million dollars each year from government grants (our tax dollars), including the Maryland State Arts Council/Maryland Department of Commerce ($100,000-$999,000), the Citizens of Baltimore County (between $100,000-$499,000), and the Howard County Arts Council (between $10,000-$99,000). The BMA receives funding directly from Baltimore City, around $2.5 million a year to pay for their employees’ benefits and support operating costs. The BMA receives additional funding from memberships and annual giving, and we can assume that the majority of these dollars also come from sources in the state of Maryland. 

 

Oletha DeVane, Saint for My City, 2009-14, Mixed Media sculpture collected by the BMA

If you look at their annual financial statements, available online, you can see that numerous local philanthropic groups donate to the museum, including the William G. Baker Memorial Fund, the Rothschild Charitable Foundation, the Warnock Family Foundation, the T. Rowe Price Foundation, the Bunting Family Foundation, and the names of prominent donors from the region are listed in categories from $5,000 to $100,000 and up. Although there should never be a quid pro quo for philanthropic support, the vast majority of the museum’s funding comes from within the State of Maryland. It seems only fair that a strategic percentage of its acquisitions budget should be invested back into the city and state’s artists, arts organizations, and galleries, especially given how much good this funding could do for the region and the museum.

For me, there is certainly a sense that the hype generated in copious amounts of press from the 2020 announcement that the museum would collect “only women” does not match the modest results presented at the end of the year. After so many articles and so much attention focused on quotes made by the museum director, a white man and citizen of the UK, I expected the results of this initiative to be dramatic and impressive, with a much greater number than 65 works of art total, given the historic exclusion of women artists and the lofty rhetoric about radicality and social justice. 

To put 65 objects into perspective, I’m just one person with a tiny budget and zero wall space and in 2020 I purchased eight “museum quality” works of art by Baltimore-based women and artists of color. If I can do this much as a single human, a museum with a vast team of super-intelligent curators should be able to purchase at least a few hundred works of art for $2.57 million, especially since it is surrounded by a rich and diverse landscape of excellent, groundbreaking artists with price points that are relatively affordable.

With so much extra funding available in 2020 for acquisitions and so much excellent art being made in Maryland by women, especially in a difficult year where travel was limited and artists and art galleries in Baltimore really struggled, I was incredibly disappointed that the museum spent barely a fraction of the money in its home city and the state, which supports it. 

 

Three sculptures by Joyce J. Scott that I would have suggested, since they already owned 9 pieces of her work which are mostly prints
There needs to be a purposeful balance between local and global acquisitions.
Cara Ober

Quite by accident, I was made aware of several works of art that were put on hold by the museum for consideration from several Baltimore-based galleries in 2020, and this gave me a great deal of excitement and hope. However, I was later informed that the museum passed on them. When I asked the director and chief curator in October why the BMA decided not to collect this work, I was informed that it was “a matter of taste.” For me, this was infuriating because taste is subjective, while the value of the artists and the long-term contribution of the galleries is measurable and should be valued. Purchasing from local artists and galleries should be prioritized and a source of pride, but it is obvious that, at least currently, the idea of giving back and investing confidently in one’s own backyard is not a consideration.

I am perplexed by the total amount spent by the BMA in 2020 on art made in Maryland. It’s a pittance compared to the $2.57 million available and a huge opportunity lost–both for the museum and for regional art communities. We don’t know exactly how much the BMA spent on those seven works from three regional artists because the museum does not publicly divulge how much it spends on any work of art, but we can estimate based on public records. Their press release mentioned one print by Joyce J. Scott of Tupac Shakur, a mixed-media sculpture from Oletha DeVane’s recent exhibition in the BMA’s springhouse, and several prints, works on paper, and two sculptures from Valerie Maynard’s current exhibition at the BMA.

Based on these limited sources, it’s reasonable to estimate the museum spent around $35,000 in Maryland. This is an inconsequential fraction of the $2.57 million spent elsewhere, funding that could have enriched our creative economy in significant ways, but instead the vast majority of this money has left our city and state to support better-established artists, galleries, and art markets in New York and other cities. 

I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that the BMA should spend all of its acquisitions budget, or even half of it, on artists based in Maryland. A museum needs to collect the most excellent work of our time, and owning art by globally recognized artists is essential in continuing a reputation that is respected across the world. However, based on their current collecting practices, the BMA’s contemporary holdings will be the same as all the other museums across the country, but missing that which makes its presence in this region unique. Telling an authentic story through the acquisition of art by those who live and work here is a worthy and even radical goal. There needs to be a purposeful balance between local and global acquisitions.

The good news is that it would be easy to rectify the situation. The BMA can publicly commit to spending a “strategic” amount in Maryland every year and to acknowledge the active role it plays in elevating the market value of certain artists and galleries across the world. The BMA can acknowledge the visionary role that it could play in supporting an art market in Maryland, and to realize that investing in one’s hometown is an issue of social and economic justice, not to mention professionalism and honor. This shift in practice has the potential to attract the support of trustees and collectors throughout the world to the artists and galleries of our place and time. If the BMA made as big a deal around collecting art made right here as it did in collecting “only women,” this would help to create a movement of support that could significantly uplift the arts ecosystem in the region, effectively advancing the global reputation of individual artists and the region as a whole. 

According to my own “art math,” spending $150,000 annually in the region (the sticker price for the Amy Sherald painting purchased by the BMA after she left Baltimore and became represented by Hauser & Wirth) would be a great start, with a commitment to spend this amount every year for a decade with the option to renew and update for inflation at the end of the experiment. If the BMA returns to spending around half a million dollars a year on art, as it did before the 2018 deaccessioning, this means that they would spend about 30 percent of its acquisition budget in Maryland and this seems reasonable.

 

Oletha Devane, Traces of the Spirit exhibition in the BMA spring house in 2019
A museum collection should be about research, relationships, and an authentic commitment to the unique culture of a place.
Cara Ober

Although he expressed a commitment to focus on global and local artists equally in a 2016 interview with BmoreArt, museum director Christopher Bedford has instead closely followed the trends of the global art market. He described the “visionary reckless speculation” of Etta and Claribel Cone, whose investment in the undervalued artists of their time that they admired has made the BMA a world-renowned institution, as his goal, but what I am observing is an institution paying much higher prices than necessary, making risk-averse decisions about collecting that do not reflect the region’s diverse ecosystem of artists, and sending almost all of its acquisition dollars outside of the state to be invested in other artists, galleries, and cities.

I suspect that one reason that many museums currently focus on collecting art from globally vetted artists is a skewed perception of value where auction prices, sales records, and global reputation are the primary indicators of lasting cultural worth, and the reality is that most Maryland artists do not have public auction records or price points relevant to a global art market.

However, confusing the market value with the actual value of work of art is a huge mistake. This is a crutch for investors who do not trust their own vision and ability to steer the art market rather than follow it, or for those who purchase art like stocks they believe will appreciate.

In the case of a museum, where works are rarely sold off and it is against the rules to sell art based on market value, this really shouldn’t have much bearing on collecting decisions. A museum collection should not be about the personal taste of a few individuals who currently work there, who will be moving on to a different position at a different institution in a few years. A collection should be about research, relationships, and an authentic commitment to the unique culture of a place. To truly diversify this collection, bigger picture thinking is required from BMA leadership. Curators need more agency to conduct research locally and advocate to collect artists who live and work here, the artists who can properly tell a unique Baltimore story as only the artists of this place can.

It’s a letdown to visit museums across the country to see all the same globally vetted artists with New York mega gallery representation on display. It’s not that these artists aren’t great, but I want to visit a museum to understand the unique history and culture of a place, to understand this diversity through the work of regional artists, materials, and trends. The BMA is exhibiting works by artists from the region like SHAN Wallace, Elissa Blount-Moorhead, and Jo Smail, and I applaud this investment, but these exhibitions are ephemeral. Once they are over, their art will be gone from public access unless the museum collects them.

I believe that Baltimore and the state of Maryland have a pivotal story to tell the rest of the world, and that our museum has an ethical and professional obligation to tell this story by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting the artists who live and work here. It’s not as if our artists haven’t earned this type of coveted and valuable recognition—it’s just that we have never had a robust art market to validate their success. Who better to begin this regional market elevation than our local museum which has the capital to invest and the clout to influence collectors?

Perhaps I just don’t understand the economics. After all my years of research, the global art market still appears to me as an expensive mirage, a bejeweled Cartier snake with giant emerald eyes chasing its own tail, a conga line of wealthy folks in asymmetrical linen pants and funky glasses who are constantly looking away to the next big thing, constantly traveling and unaware of the incredible, world-class art being made right here right now. Maryland has an expanding list of Guggenheim fellows, Joan Mitchell grantees, Rome Prize Fellows, Pollock-Krasner recipients, and artists whose work is being collected in museums across the country and the BMA is missing out on the opportunity to collect their work now.

For anyone who says they do not know where or how to start conducting researching and collecting Baltimore- and Maryland-based artists, BmoreArt is here to help you! We have released ten print journals full of excellent and collectible artists since 2015 and a reading list to help you select the perfect regional artist to diversify your collection. You can discover regional galleries through BmoreArt’s online resource guide, calendar, and weekly event listings. You can conduct research via the Baker Artist Awards website, GBCA’s newsletter, BOPA’s distinguished list of Sondheim winners and finalists for the past fifteen years, the Rubys Artist Grants, the Maryland Artist Registry, and a number of other local art organizations, residency programs, and exhibitions that highlight the achievements of artists from the region. 

I have invested so much time and energy over the past few years trying to understand how and why art is collected in order to better advocate for the acquisition of the work of a number of the most successful artists of the region. There are a growing number of artists with the talent and work ethic needed to become international sensations, artists whose work we will soon not be able to afford if all goes well, and others whose work has influenced multiple generations of young artists and whose legacy should be represented in the BMA’s collection for perpetuity.

We will all benefit from collecting the art of our place and time, especially our Baltimore museum. The time has come to think strategically about how to diversify the collection to be more inclusive, equitable, and authentic to this unique place and time, to properly value the artists of the region who are our greatest treasure. I’m not sure how much more appealing I can make this to museum leadership, but clearly the art math is beyond me. 

 

Header image: Sculptural and painted works by Valerie Maynard at the BMA in 2020

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