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Baltimore Museum of Art board calls off controversial artwork auction

In an eleventh-hour decision, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s board of trustees voted Wednesday to call off a controversial auction and private sale that would have sent three potentially irreplaceable artworks out of Maryland.

The decisive vote was taken just two hours before two of the three paintings, Clyfford Still’s “1957-G” and Brice Marden’s “3,” were scheduled to be sold by Sotheby’s Auction House in New York. A third painting, Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper,” had been headed for a private sale.

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The board’s decision to “pause” the auction represents a stunning reversal of a course that the museum announced with fanfare earlier this month. It throws into doubt museum director Christopher Bedford’s plans to use proceeds from the sale of the three artworks — anticipated to fetch $65 million — to create an endowment supporting an ambitious slate of diversity initiatives.

“Our vision and our goals have not changed,” the museum said in a statement. “It will take us longer to achieve them, but we will do so through all the means at our disposal. That is our mission and we stand behind it.”

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Wednesday’s announcement culminated a volatile three weeks that threatened to tarnish the previously stellar reputation of Maryland’s largest art museum and of its mission-driven director, whose methods and rhetoric offended some of his critics.

Even as the opposition to the sale escalated, the board of trustees appeared to remain steadfast. As recently as Tuesday, the museum declared that the auction would proceed as scheduled.

But word began to leak Wednesday that an emergency meeting of the board had been called for that afternoon to discuss the auction and potential sale.

Laurence Eisenstein, a Washington attorney, BMA donor and former trustee who spearheaded the opposition to the sale, said he’s “absolutely thrilled at the board’s decision to rescind the sales of these three works of art.

“Obviously, there are serious wounds that need to heal in this community,” Eisenstein said, “but we appreciate that there are people on both sides who have a deep and abiding love for the Baltimore Museum of Art.”

Eisenstein emphasized that opponents of the sale support making the BMA more diverse, but not the methods the trustees had adopted.

“The board’s decision makes an important statement on a local and national level about the importance of our cultural heritage and of making careful and considered decisions about taking art off the walls of the museums,” Eisenstein said.

But at least one trustee said she’s disheartened that Wednesday’s auction was canceled.

“We were all so excited about this and about what we could use the funds to accomplish,” trustee Amy Elias said.

“We believed we would finally have the resources to create lasting and really necessary change," she said. "What I found disappointing was the intensity of feelings around the sale and the way that people expressed them. This has been a divisive conversation. It is not something our community should be proud of.”

Bedford’s plans to deaccession the three paintings (museum lingo for removing artworks from the permanent collection) raised the ire of some art lovers nationwide from the moment it was announced Oct. 2.

While pressure to cancel the sale mounted — critics at influential publications nationwide weighed in, and potential donors threatened to rescind $50 million in planned gifts — the fatal blow was struck when the Association of Art Museum Directors appeared Tuesday to withdraw its support for the sale.

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Though it lacks regulatory power over individual institutions, museum officials take the association’s directives seriously. To do otherwise risks sanctions and a public shaming of an institution. Individual careers can be blotted.

The saga began in April when the association temporarily relaxed its guidelines governing how proceeds from artwork sales can be used. The organization was attempting to stem the financial havoc that the pandemic has been wreaking on its members.

Bedford believed that the revised guidelines offered him a rare, brief chance to raise a large amount of money that would enable him to put his vision into action.

“Chris told us that we had a two-year window of opportunity to rethink how we were strategically pursuing our goals of equity and diversity," said Clair Zamoiski Segal, chairwoman of the BMA’s board of trustees, earlier this month, "and it would be foolish not to take advantage of it.”

Bedford and the trustees came up with a plan that appeared to remain within association guidelines. It proposed raising $65 million by selling the three artworks. Ten million dollars would have been used to buy new paintings and sculptures by women and artists of color — a use of deaccession funds that always had been approved.

The remaining $54.5 million would have created an endowment for the care of the collection. Officials planned to use the interest, estimated to be about $2.5 million a year, to eliminate ticketed exhibitions, open the museum one night a week and increase staff salaries.

The BMA wrote in its statement Wednesday that it had been in touch with association leadership when planning for the deaccessioning began and had been assured that its plans “were in alignment and accordance with the resolutions it passed in April 2020.”

But as Bedford and the trustees focused on what the relaxed guidelines permitted, they focused less on the purpose of the rule change: to throw a lifeline to museums reeling financially from the pandemic. Unlike many of its counterparts that lost ticket revenue, the BMA, which has offered free admission since 2006, has not suffered financially as a result of the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, the organization issued a “clarification” of its guidelines that seemed aimed at the BMA’s auction plans, though it did not name the institution directly. Association President Brent Benjamin wrote that the resolutions adopted in April “were explicitly intended to assist museums facing a financial crisis due to the impacts of the pandemic."

Wednesday, 14 past directors of the association went a step further, sending a letter to Segal stating that “the funds for ... long-term needs — or ambitious goals ... must not come from the sale of deaccessioned art” and urging “the Baltimore Museum of Art to reconsider its planned sale of artworks this evening.”

Trustees felt they had no choice, disappointing such supporters as the Rev. Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP. He sent Bedford and Segal a letter Wednesday thanking them for their efforts to diversify their collections and to make the museum more welcoming to a non-traditional audience.

Little wrote that he found it “disturbing and unsettling that your efforts, approved by an overwhelming majority of your board, have been met with such vociferous opposition" by people he described as “bullies opposed to progress.”

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But the museum vowed in its statement — and Elias reiterated — that while Wednesday’s vote represents a setback, it is not a defeat.

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“We will move past this," Elias said. “We will continue working to create a more open, diverse and inclusive institution. We’ll just find some other way to get there.”

This news was included in our weekday morning audio briefing on Oct. 29. Here’s how to listen.

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