Baltimore Museum of Art to sell works by masters such as Andy Warhol, will aim to improve artist diversity

The Baltimore Museum of Art announced Friday that it is selling seven artworks by such 20th-century masters as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Franz Kline to make way for pieces by contemporary artists of color and women.

Going up for sale at Sotheby’s in May are two artworks by Warhol (“Oxidation Painting” from 1978 and “Hearts” from 1979) and one each by Kline (“Green Cross” from 1956) and Rauschenberg (“Bank Job” from 1979). Rounding out the seven are three paintings by lesser-known artists: Kenneth Noland’s “Lapis Lazuli” from 1963 and “In-Vital” from 1982, along with Jules Olitski’s “Before Darkness II” from 1973.

Kline’s painting alone is expected to fetch between $6 and $8 million, while Warhol’s “Oxidation Painting,” should bring in between $2 million and $3 million, according to a spokesman for Sotheby’s in New York, which is handling the sales. Five works will be sold at auction on May 16 and 17, while two extremely large artworks — Warhol’s “Hearts” and the Rauschenberg — will be put up for private sale.

Museum director Christopher Bedford pointed out that the museum owns many other, and stronger, works by each of the artists who created the pieces leaving the collection. For instance, the BMA owns more than 90 artworks by Warhol, roughly a dozen by Kline and about two dozen by Rauschenberg.

The process of selling artworks from a museum collection, known as deaccession, “is a necessity to ensure the greatness of the collection going forward,” Bedford said. “All the major museums in this country deaccession annually as a matter of routine.”

Selling museum masterworks might not be an everyday affair, but Nina del Rio, head of museum and corporate art services at Sotheby's New York, said it’s also not unusual.

“Museums usually deaccession works in areas of the collection in which they have great depth,” she said. “You’re not raiding your collection or depriving the public if you own better examples by the same artists.”

For example, in 2013, New York’s Museum of Modern Art sold “Cagney” by Warhol for $4.9 million. Two years earlier, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts put on the market artworks by Claude Monet, Pierre-August Renoir, Camille Pissaro and Paul Gauguin. The BMA sold a Mark Rothko painting, “Olive Over Red” for $950,000 in 1988 after receiving another Rothko as a gift.

But sales can also generate controversy.

In the mid-1990s, the attempted sale of Maryland Institute College of Art’s entire collection of 20,000 French prints by such masters as Eugene Delacroix and Mary Cassatt shocked the nation’s cultural community and ended up in court. The BMA and the Walters Art Museum sued MICA in an effort to block the sale of the George A. Lucas Collection. The issue was resolved the following year after the BMA purchased the Lucas Collection from MICA.

Bedford said the process for selling museum-owned artworks is spelled out in the institution’s bylaws and was initiated nine or 10 months ago. The potential sale was approved by the museum’s curators, by a committee that included collectors and community members and finally, by the board of trustees, which unanimously approved the sale in March. The contract with Sotheby’s was signed Thursday.

“We followed best practices and we got the blessing of the American Alliance of Museums,” board chairwoman Clair Zamoiski Segal said. “It’s just a refining of the collection and will permit us to bring in other pieces we would not be able to afford at this point.”

During the same meeting in which the museum’s board of trustees announced that it was selling the seven artworks, it also approved the purchase of nine artworks by contemporary artists, several of whom are black.

Bedford has spoken often of the necessity of ensuring that museums reflect the population of the cities in which they are located. Though the city of Baltimore is 63.7 percent black, according to 2010 census data, its flagship contemporary museum owns relatively few artworks by African-American artists.

The purchases will be one small step toward diversifying the museum’s collection. Among them are works by the artists Mark Bradford, John T. Scott and Jack Whitten, who are African-American, and Zanele Muholi, who is South African. The museum also purchased pieces by artists Sara VanDerBeek and Trevor Paglen, who are white. The seven artworks being sold — five paintings, one mural and one work that combines paint and silkscreen — all were created by white men.

“It is a very good thing to make room for new works by contemporary artists,” said Costas Grimaldis, owner of Mount Vernon’s prestigious C. Grimaldis Gallery. “It’s also a good thing to have room in a museum’s storage for works by artists like Kline, Rothko and Rauschenberg that have already made history.”

mmccauley@baltsun.com

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