By Peggy McGlone
Oct. 16, 2020
Former trustees, committee members, donors and docents of the Baltimore Museum of Art have asked Maryland officials to halt the institution’s plans to sell paintings by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still and Brice Marden, and to investigate what they describe as irregularities and conflicts of interest surrounding the sales.
In an eight-page letter to Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and Secretary of State John C. Wobensmith, the 23 signatories charge that the museum’s plan is a breach of the public trust and should be stopped.
The Baltimore Museum of Art announced Oct. 2 that it expected to generate $65 million from the sale of three paintings — Warhol’s “The Last Supper,” Still’s “1957-G” and Marden’s “3.” It plans to use $10 million for new art acquisitions and about $1 million for diversity and equity programs, and will set aside the remaining $54 million in an endowment for other expenses, including raises for staff.
In announcing the plan, Director Christopher Bedford said that the museum is financially sound and that the sale of three works by White men is intended to address systemic racism and injustice that “should have been addressed with determination centuries ago.”
In a statement, the BMA said it is confident that there are no legal issues related to the proposed deaccessioning plan.
In 2018, the museum sold seven paintings, including works by Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland, for $16.2 million. It used the proceeds to purchase art by women and artists of color.
These latest deaccessions take advantage of a rule change that allows greater flexibility for the use of proceeds from sales. In April, the Association of Art Museum Directors temporarily changed its guidelines primarily to help museums that are being hard hit by the pandemic. As a result, the BMA can use the interest generated by the sale for a broad range of expenses, including paying staff and funding diversity initiatives.
Critics say the museum could fund these programs without selling these critical pieces. Laurence J. Eisenstein, a former trustee who signed the letter, said it is unclear how much money will be used for equity and inclusion work — efforts he supports — and he said there is nothing that binds the museum to continue to use the money that way in the future.
“To the extent it’s being presented as an equal justice initiative, that is a smokescreen — the museum is, at best, dedicating money to acquisitions and salaries that is well below the value of even one of the works being sold,” Eisenstein said.
The attorney general’s office would not confirm an investigation, saying it doesn’t comment on actions it may or may not take in response to complaints. Messages left with the secretary of state’s office, which oversees nonprofits, were not returned.
The letter, which notes that state officials have oversight and “the power to review and challenge a museum board’s decisions,” criticizes the choice of three important works for deaccessioning.
“Each one feels like it’s the last one you would want to get rid of. The Warhol is particularly painful. It’s just a masterpiece,” Eisenstein said. “The plan risks undermining the credibility of the museum.”
The Still was a gift from the artist and is the only painting by him in the museum’s collection. The abstract expressionist, who lived in New Windsor, Md., from 1961 until 1980, made the gift in 1969.
“It was really rare for Still to give works away,” said Bailey Placzek, associate curator at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, adding that the BMA gift is the only time Still gave a single painting to an institution.
Still gave groups of paintings to three other museums — the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington — and his paintings are in the collections of only a handful of other museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Placzek said.
The Still work, she said, “is a really beautiful, important painting.”
The deaccessioning of the Marden painting is problematic because the artist is alive, and museums generally keep works of living artists. “Selling a work of art during an artist’s lifetime . . . might negatively impact the market,” the letter writers note, “a consequence that is inherently antithetical to the BMA’s role of supporting art and artists.”
The BMA’s statement said the works were selected “through a rigorous collection review process led by the museum’s senior curators, who proposed the artworks for deaccession, in accordance with AAMD’s criteria.”
The letter writers suggest that the use of deaccessioning funds for staff salaries raises conflict-of-interest issues. Bedford placed curators in “an untenable position” because their approval of the plan may directly benefit them, a violation of AAMD guidelines, the letter argues.
The BMA says this claim is unfounded. “The lowest paid hourly wage earners within the institution — none of whom were involved in determining the works for sale — are the only individuals for whom a specific pay increase has been defined,” it said in a statement.
The letter also points to problems with the proposed methods of sale. It criticizes the museum’s decision to sell the Warhol through a private sale rather than public auction, the preferred method according to AAMD guidelines. “This iconic Warhol painting is likely being sold, or already has been sold, at a bargain-basement price,” they write.
The writers also ask whether the museum sought competitive proposals from several auction houses for the Still and Marden paintings before agreeing to let Sotheby’s auction them on Oct. 28.
The BMA’s response described these charges as without merit, but it did not address the question of whether the museum sought proposals from other auction houses or why the private sale of the Warhol is “the most effective format.”
“The BMA has worked with Sotheby’s on numerous occasions, as have institutions across the United States, to great success,” it said.
“Museums become great or are great by acquiring art, not deaccessioning art,” said Peter W. Broido, a former member of the museum’s Contemporary Accessions Committee who signed the letter. “This is not what museums are about. It’s nonsense.”
MAIN IMAGE: The Baltimore Museum of Art. (Mitro Hood)