Baltimore Museum Deaccessioning Controversy, Explained: Why a Plan to Sell $65 M. in Art Ignited Debate

When museums sell art from their collections, the proceedings rarely become the stuff of national news, but such is the case with the Baltimore Museum of Art in Maryland, which is currently weathering controversy over a plan to part ways with some $65 million in art. The plan has touched off fierce debate about how institutional change ought to take place and whether the museum should be able to sell the works. Two hours ahead of a planned sale of two works at Sotheby’s, the BMA “decided to pause” the deaccession plan. Below is a look back at why the controversy began and how it unfolded. 

What is deaccessioning?
Periodically, museums sell works from their holdings to support various initiatives in a practice known as deaccessioning. Sometimes, this is done to clear works that are perceived as being of low quality or have been looted; other times, it is done to raise money. While there aren’t laws that guide what can and can’t be deaccessioned, and for what purposes, an industry group known as the Association of Art Museum Directors offers recommendations for how and when works can be sold to bring money into the museum. Though it is rare, the AAMD has sanctioned institutions for their deaccessioning efforts it deems questionable, which can cause them financial strife and make it difficult for them to obtain or make loans.

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What was the Baltimore Museum of Art selling?
The museum is parting ways with three works: a 25-and-a-half-foot-long Andy Warhol silkscreen resembling Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and abstractions by Clyfford Still and Brice Marden. Together, they were expected to bring in $65 million into the institution. The Still and the Marden were to be sold at a Sotheby’s contemporary art sale tonight in New York, and the Warhol was to be sold privately by the auction house.

Where were the funds from the sale going to go?
The Baltimore Museum of Art has said the deaccessioning plan is compliant with new guidelines from the AAMD, which allow institutions to sell works if it goes toward the direct care of the collection. (The Brooklyn Museum, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, and the Palm Springs Art Museum in California have made use of the new guidelines already.) In keeping with the new AAMD rules, the museum was to put $54.5 million toward direct care of the collection, which also includes raising the salaries of several dozen staff members involved; $10 million to support an initiative that will see more works by women and nonwhite artists enter the collection; $500,000 toward a diversity, equity, and inclusion plan; and $590,000 toward making admission free for special exhibitions.

Andy Warhol’s 'The Last Supper' (1986) is among the works set to be deaccessioned by the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper (1986) is among the works set to be deaccessioned by the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Is there a precedent for the new deaccessioning plan?
Yes. In 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Art deaccessioned seven works by Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Franz Kline with the aim of buying art by women and nonwhite artists. With the $7 million brought in from those sales, the museum bought works by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jack Whitten, Wangechi Mutu, Amy Sherald, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Wang Qingsong, Adam Pendleton, Chuck Ramirez, and more. That deaccessioning was also controversial—the Baltimore Sun labeled it a “horrendous decision”—but it proved influential. Soon after, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art sold a Mark Rothko painting for a similar purpose.

What have the Baltimore Museum of Art’s detractors said about the latest sale?
Critics claim that the Baltimore Museum of Art is making an awkward overcorrection to justify selling major works by art-historical titans. “The plan stomps all over best practices for deaccessioning art, as if no such standards exist,” Christopher Knight, a critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote in an op-ed earlier this month. Meanwhile, 11 former trustees signed an open letter in which they demanded that the museum’s practices be investigated by the Maryland Attorney General, claiming that due diligence was not done in seeking the highest prices from Sotheby’s.

How have leaders at the museum defended the deaccessioning?
The Baltimore Museum of Art has framed the issue in terms of institutional change, with director Christopher Bedford saying that it is necessary to work toward “diversity and equity measures and that those measures need to address both the substance and content of our collections, exhibitions, and programs, as well as the concerns of the people that create and engage with them.” And in an Art Newspaper op-ed, curators Asma Naeem and Katy Seigel cautioned against the idea that a museum collection is static, saying that the deaccessioning would help push the institution forward.

Has there been fallout at the museum?
Yes. In October, two former chairmen of the museum rescinded two verbally pledged gifts totaling $50 million. (Clair Zamoiski Segal, the current board chair, said that those pledges were never recorded in the minutes and that the museum never officially considered them as planned gifts.) One of the former chairmen, Charles Newhall, sent a letter to the board in which he wrote, “In my mind Chris Bedford is stacking the board with artists that he promotes, and the BMA has bought paintings from. This appears to be a serious conflict of interest.” Following that allegation, artists Amy Sherald and Adam Pendleton resigned from the board. (Neither weighed in on the deaccessioning plan in their statements about their respective departures.)

What has the AAMD said about the controversy?
The AAMD has not responded directly. But, in a memo this October, AAMD president Brent Benjamin attempted to clarify the AAMD’s earlier statements about its new guidelines, writing, “The resolutions are designed to address the pandemic and its unpredictable impact on the economy, charitable giving and opportunities for people to gather in groups—all of which affect art museum audiences, operations, and finances. I recognize that many of our institutions have long-term needs—or ambitious goals—that could be supported, in part, by taking advantage of these resolutions to sell art. But however serious those long-term needs or meritorious those goals, the current position of AAMD is that the funds for those must not come from the sale of deaccessioned art.”


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