Two museums planned to sell works from their collections at a Sotheby’s auction on Wednesday evening.
One progressed seamlessly, with the Brooklyn Museum raising nearly $ 20 million for seven works by artists, including Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, and Claude Monet.
The other, the Baltimore Museum of Art, decided to remove its paintings – by Clyfford Still and Brice Marden – two hours before the much-criticized sale after talks with the Association of Art Museum Directors, a professional organization that advances best practices in the field.
If the disparate reactions to the two auctions are a bit confusing, welcome to the world of desacession, the often Byzantine process by which museums get rid of objects that no longer serve their long-term interests, whether through sale or donation. .
It‘s common for museums to sell second-tier or redundant works that languish in storage rooms to generate funds for new acquisitions. But museums can go against ethical standards set by the association – and risk being publicly hit with sanctions that prohibit loans from member museums – when decommissioning funds are allocated to operating expenses.
But the association relaxed its rules in April, acknowledging the extraordinary financial pressures the pandemic had placed on museums. He said that for two years, museums would be able to use the decommissioning funds not only to pay for acquisitions, but also to directly manage their collections. And, significantly, the organization provided leeway in how each facility defined this care internally.
Brooklyn and Baltimore were quick to take advantage of it.
For Brooklyn, which has laid off 7% of its staff since the start of the pandemic, the need was dire. Its director, Anne Pasternak, said the institution was “extremely conservative” in its selection of objects. A table by Carlo Mollino, worth $ 6.2 million at Sotheby’s, had been considered for disaccession for decades, given the museum’s greater possession of the artist’s works. “The Monet happens to be charming but is not one of his great works nor close to the best in our collection,” Ms. Pasternak said.
Likewise, the museum has been cautious about how the money will be allocated to the care fund for its collection. “We didn’t just say, ‘Here are all the restaurant owners’ salaries’; we estimated the time they would actually spend maintaining an item, ”she said.
Baltimore, however, had a balanced budget and no layoffs or time off. Rather, its director, Christopher Bedford, who in 2018 donated seven premier paintings to purchase works by women and artists of color, seized the opportunity to raise funds for more initiatives based on the equity in its museum – in a city with a 68 percent black population.
With his curators and board of directors, he nominated Still and the Marden, as well as a monumental canvas from Andy Warhol’s “Last Supper” series, which together are expected to bring in $ 65 million. The museum said the proceeds from the sale would be used to acquire more work by underrepresented artists and to create an endowment for the care of the collection that would free approximately $ 2.5 million in the budget for increases. staff-level wages and other equity-oriented measures. Given Warhol’s wealth, Marden’s works on paper, and the Abstract Expressionist movement as a whole, the rulers felt they could still richly tell these stories without the works to be removed.
“This is done specifically in recognition of the demonstration led by museum staff to receive a fair living wage to do the groundwork for an institution with a social justice mission,” Mr Bedford said in early October, after a summer protests when museums across the country dealt with internal complaints about structural inequalities and racism in the workplace.
The association of museum directors expressed no concerns at first. “They are in line with how AAMD has defined this resolution for this period,” said its executive director, Christine Anagnos, at the time of the announcement.
But the backlash was quick on the part of art critics, historians and museum professionals. The paintings for sale were hardly second-rate, said Arnold Lehman, former director of the Baltimore (1979-97) and Brooklyn (1997-2015) museums.
“I’m not at all opposed to disaccession,” Mr. Lehman said, “but Baltimore was selling masterpieces – as good as you’re going to get from Warhol’s ending, as well as you’re going to get from Marden. and a fabulous Still. He was personally involved in the acquisition of the Warhol and the Marden. The Still, a gift from the artist who lived in Maryland late in her life, is also the only work in her collection.
A group of former Baltimore administrators led by Laurence Eisenstein has asked the state of Maryland to intervene in an open letter.
The current chairman of the Baltimore board, Clair Zamoiski Segal, hit back. “To suggest that the absence of these three works breaks the trust of the public misses the reality of the many people whose trust we have not yet gained,” she said in a statement.
Prominent donors have said they have rescinded their pledges. “I certainly don’t believe in selling masterpieces to fund diversity,” wrote Charles Newhall III, former chairman of the board, in his letter of resignation as honorary trustee on October 15. . “In my mind, Chris Bedford is putting the artists he is promoting and the BMA has bought paintings. “
Two acclaimed black artists on the board, Amy Sherald and Adam Pendleton, then stepped down, without directly weighing on the imbroglio of disaccession. But Ms Sherald, who spent her formative years as a young artist in Baltimore and is best known for painting the portrait of Michelle Obama, took umbrage at Mr Newhall’s claim. “It is a great daring to assume that I was nominated only to be used as a pawn for the gain of Christopher Bedford,” she wrote in her public statement.
In an interview this week, Eisenstein said critics of the sale agreed with promoting diversity and pay equity, but were opposed to “taking what appears to be a shortened approach to monetizing. art instead of doing the harder job of fundraising. and development. “
Lori Johnson, professor of art history at Morgan State University in Baltimore, said the attitude expressed by critics only maintained the status quo. “Saying we could fundraise through traditional means is basically how we got to where we are now – we are still under-represented and we still have people waiting for the careers they deserve. She said. “There is more at stake than these three works.”
Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., of Union Baptist Church in Baltimore, said he hopes the dispute will spark a healthy conversation in America about structural barriers to equality. “Is it the value of art or is the value of the accessibility of others to have access to art and so that their art is also valued”, he asked.
State officials have never publicly intervened in the affair, but the association clarified its position this week in a statement from its president, Brent Benjamin. Funds intended for “long-term needs – or lofty goals,” he wrote, “must not come from the sale of abandoned art.”
Then 14 current and former museum directors signed a letter to the chairman of the Baltimore board asking the museum to reconsider the sale.
The museum finally decided to “suspend” its plan to sell the works after a telephone call Wednesday afternoon between the leaders of the association and Mr. Bedford and Ms. Zamoiski Segal.
But Mr Bedford made it clear in an interview Thursday that the bigger conversation is not over.
“As an institution, we value the views of our colleagues and understand the importance of upholding the professional guidelines that govern our field,” said Mr. Bedford. “However, I believe that the time has come to think more deeply about the operating standards of museums. The turmoil we are experiencing is not just financial; it is the result of ingrained systems which cannot sustain neither the moment nor the future. Our communities call us to action, to go beyond words and symbols.