Baltimore Museum of Art decision to sell major works gets national pushback
BALTIMORE — When Baltimore's oldest art museum decided to sell three of its most prominent paintings, including a major work by pop-art icon Andy Warhol, to raise millions of dollars toward its avowed goal of promoting diversity, the reaction was swift and mostly fierce.
More than 150 prominent supporters, including former board chairs and members, signed a letter to the Maryland attorney general calling for a halt to the sale. Three honorary board members have quit, taking with them decades of institutional knowledge. Reports are swirling of massive canceled donations.
Plus, the controversy has gone national.
Christopher Knight, a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a column last week calling the Baltimore Museum of Art "the leading poster child for art collection carelessness." A renowned San Francisco-based author on the art market, Martin Gammon, told a worldwide readership that the decision was "uniquely egregious" and "didn't pass the smell test." A Warhol biographer piled on.
With the auction of two of the works set to commence Wednesday, Christopher Bedford, the BMA's fifth-year director, isn't just staunchly defending the plan to sell the paintings to raise $65 million. He's calling it part of a "long overdue" effort to bring new breadth and openness to the institution and the museum world in general.
His board of trustees agrees — more than 95% of members voted to approve the sales, a museum spokesperson said — and so do some minority patrons and art historians.
Bedford, 43, says he's not altogether shocked at the pushback. He views it as the inevitable result of necessary change in an art world with a long-entrenched status quo.
He says he's challenging a mindset that disproportionately favors a white, Eurocentric point of view, seeking instead to extend the definition of the public trust "to a wildly more diverse community."
"Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, but to me, any opposition to that effort — which is so many decades overdue — is itself an investment in a system of operating institutions that is very deeply centered in white power and white privilege," he said in an interview.
"We are not seeking any longer the trust of the privileged white few that has enjoyed museums like the BMA historically."
The contretemps began, in a way, in 2016, when the BMA hired Bedford, a man universally considered a rising star in the art world, as the successor to Doreen Bolger, who left her post in 2015 after 17 consequential years on the job.
He was chosen, trustees say, because his views matched the BMA's goal of diversifying.
Bedford created an early stir two years ago when he spearheaded the sale — "deaccession" in art world parlance — of seven works, including pieces by Warhol and other white male postwar artists. The auction raised more than $7 million toward the purchase of pieces by artists of color.
This year's much bolder plan came to him, he says, when the museum was shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The idea was to select works of sufficient value to advance the cause but not, in the view of the BMA's team of curators and trustees, significantly reduce the artistic quality of the museum's collection, which numbers 95,000 works.
They settled on "The Last Supper," a monumental 1986 silk screen by Warhol many consider a masterpiece, and paintings by Brice Marden, an influential minimalist, and Clyfford Still, an abstract expressionist who lived in Westminster from 1961 to 1980.
But those very works represent the core pieces of the museum's contemporary collection, said former museum director Arnold Lehman.
"They are like the columns that are in front of the Baltimore museum," said Lehman, who helped acquire Warhol's piece, which he fears is being used as a "cash cow."
Trustees who spoke with The Baltimore Sun said allegations that the decision was hasty or ill-conceived are incorrect. The process took more than six months and included dozens of meetings among museum leaders and trustees, they said, giving every stakeholder a chance to assess the pros and cons at multiple stages.
The board overwhelmingly approved the initiative at an Oct. 1 Zoom meeting. Only one or two of the 37 members who voted cast ballots against any of the sales, museum spokeswoman Anne Mannix Brown said.
At first glance, the initiative, which the BMA has dubbed "Endowment for the Future," sounds practical, even noble, given the museum's goals.
The museum has engaged Sotheby's auction house, which Bedford says "overwhelmingly dominates" the deaccession market, to sell the Warhol privately, reportedly for a guaranteed $40 million, and to sell the other works at auction.
About $54.5 million of the proceeds are to endow a fund that would support salaries for the more than 40 staff members who care for the BMA's collection. The museum also would eliminate admission costs for all special exhibits, expand evening hours and more. General admission has been free since 2006.
About $10 million would go toward an acquisition fund to increase representation by women and artists of color. An additional $500,000 has been earmarked to support diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion initiatives, including offering employees anti-bias training.
Critics who allege that the $10 million figure for new acquisitions is insufficient to meet the museum's stated goal of advancing the diversity cause are missing a larger point, longtime board member David Warnock says.
"All of those uses of the proceeds are consistent with our determination to broaden our constituency and make that museum more welcoming and more relevant to everyone, from collecting more underrepresented great artists to supporting pay equity for employees and letting everyone enjoy all we have free of charge," Warnock said.
Lori Johnson, an art history professor at Morgan State who sits on the BMA's accessions committee, says the museum's "groundbreaking" decision could help her Black students feel welcomed enough that they might see a place for themselves as artists or curators in a world that once seemed alien.
"In the city of Baltimore, which is predominantly Black, if you don't see yourself represented in these spaces, how much 'access' do you really have?" she says. "This (move) will help me convince people, 'There's a future for you here.'"
The plan's detractors are numerous and vehement.
Most say they support the larger goal of diversifying the art museum world but express alarm at the way this plan "stomps all over" crucial art-world traditions "as if no such standards exist," in the words of Knight, the LA Times critic.
The Association of Art Museum Directors, a body that represents 227 museums and sets industry guidelines, has long frowned on deaccessioning for purely financial reasons as a way of discouraging the "monetizing" of collections.
The association temporarily relaxed those guidelines in April as a lifeline to museums in peril due to the pandemic.
The BMA launched its plan shortly thereafter, even though Bedford has acknowledged the museum is in solid financial condition.
"We went very much by the letter of the law," Bedford said. He noted that the directors association endorsed the sale, which a spokesman for the association confirmed.
But many critics are saying the museum's goals could be accomplished through traditional fundraising efforts — and without shepherding notable works of art into the showrooms of private owners.
"They don't just belong to the BMA. They belong to the citizens of Baltimore, the citizens of Maryland," said Stiles Colwill, a former chair of the museum's board of trustees.
Colwill resigned during the Oct. 1 virtual meeting even before votes were cast. Then an honorary trustee, he didn't have voting power.
"I watched people who believed in what they're doing abrogate all stewardship that they are supposed to follow as a museum trustee," Colwill said. "Preserve and protect your collection: That is your first mandate."
Charles Newhall III, another former board chair, issued a letter of resignation on Oct. 21. In an interview, Newhall said that he and another donor are withholding about $50 million in pledged funds because of the museum's new direction.
Newhall also said he wants "any public display" in recognition of his family's $5 million in previous gifts to be removed from the museum.
"I can't lend my name to something that I believe so completely is wrong," Newhall said.
To Colwill, the decision represents a failure on the part of Bedford, whom he branded a "rogue director." In encouraging the sale, he said, Bedford violated long-standing norms, including that museums avoid deaccessioning the works of living artists for fear of damaging their reputations. Marden, whose painting "3" is part of the sale, is 82.
In an editorial for The Art Newspaper, a journal on developments in art collection, San Francisco's Gammon called the decision to sell the Marden "grotesque" and said "the only conceivable rationale" for selling the Warhol "is the enormous windfall they would hope to reap by selling this singularly important work of art."
Knight joined the throngs of critics with his scathing column, in which he likened the museum's decision to a scam.
"Baltimore's leadership, in a sordid display that conjures the cold opportunism of disaster capitalism, exploited the deadly health crisis to raid the storerooms," he wrote.
Opponents argue the sales would deal a powerful blow to the museum's contemporary collection, damage its reputation and turn away potential future donors.
"Who's going to give the Baltimore Museum of Art their prized painting or sculpture if they're afraid that maybe in 20 years, the museum is going to dump it for some pet project?" Knight said in an interview.
One of the three paintings was donated by Still, a pioneer of the abstract expressionist movement — alongside artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko — who spent the last years of his life in Maryland. Still was notably distrustful of the art world later in life and donated to museums on only four occasions during his life. In this respect, the deaccession is especially painful, critics say.
The letter to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh argues that by selling such valuable assets, the BMA has violated its fiduciary duty to taxpayers and calls for Frosh to intercede.
Through a spokesperson, Frosh declined to comment on the request.
For his part, Bedford remains enthusiastic about Endowment for the Future. He argues deaccessioning is becoming less unusual and that it's common practice for museums to sell the work of living artists.
And he says that while it remains important to observe industry guidelines, the larger demands of societal change around matters of race make it time to question traditional norms.
"Adherence to the previous playbook is what has led us into irrelevance," he says. "When I step back, I have absolutely no doubt that institutions like ours will be on the right side of history when history is written."