A colossal art scandal or forward-thinking move?

When you think about a museum and its purpose, you tend to think of words like "preservation." A museum of art, then, is a place where remarkable works are collected and saved so that we (and future generations) can continue to enjoy them.

When is it okay for an art museum to sell off art from its collections?

painting

Clyfford Still, 1957-G (1957). Image courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) announced that it is deaccessioning three works by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still, and Brice Marden. In the museum world, "deaccession" is a hot-button term that means to remove a work from its permanent collection. The Marden and the Still will be put to auction and the Warhol will be privately sold, to generate a predicted total of $65 million for the museum.

How the Money Will Be Used

The Baltimore Museum has avoided making furloughs and layoffs due to the pandemic. The museum's director, Christopher Bedford, insists that "[t]his is a vision-based initiative, not desperation-based.”

In fact, $10 million of the $65 million is earmarked for acquiring more works by women and artists of color while another $500,000 will fund a plan for diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. Most of the sale—about $54.5 million—will be used to create an "Endowment for the Future" which will generate $2.5 million a year to go towards salaries, research, conservation, evening hours, and eliminating admission fees for special exhibitions. 

painting

Brice Marden, 3 (1987-88). Image courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art.

Is This Good or Bad?

The sale has some people upset. In April of this year, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) loosened regulations on how museums could generate funds—including making it easier to sell deaccessioned work. This loosening was meant to help museums weather the pandemic storm.

Christopher Knight, writing for the Los Angeles Timescalls the sale of the three paintings a "colossal art museum scandal" and the "bonfire of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s vanities." Knight characterizes the move as using "COVID as a Cover to Sell Warhol":

"A brief window of opportunity had been thrown wide when one of the nation’s two leading museum professional associations relaxed the rules, hoping to ease expected financial fallout from the COVID-19 tragedy. Baltimore soon ripped open an ethical breach big enough to drive a truck through."

On the other hand, museum workers across the nation have been clamoring for solutions to financial problems wrought by the pandemic. One offered solution was deaccessioning artwork.

Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, described the decision to sell as "an incredibly long, searching process, with conversations occasionally heated, as they should be.”

The museum assures that the selection of three paintings was made “to ensure that the narratives essential to the understanding of art history could continue to be told with depth and richness.”

What do you think about the sale? Is it an insidious move during a time of crisis, or a sensible decision for the future? Comment below!