Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper” is packing up the cutlery and getting ready to move out of Baltimore.
The Baltimore Museum of Art’s board of trustees voted Thursday night to have Sotheby’s auction house sell three significant — and, it could be argued, irreplaceable — modern artworks later this fall in an effort to expand diversity initiatives.
The three artworks are Warhol’s monumental 1986 silkscreen, “The Last Supper,” Brice Marden’s "3″ and “1957-G” by Clyfford Still, an artist who lived in Westminster for nearly 20 years, from 1961 to 1980. They are expected to fetch more than $65 million, according to museum director Christopher Bedford.
The works by Marden and Still will go under the gavel, while the Warhol will be sold privately by the auction house.
Funds from the sale will be used to create a $54.5 million endowment for the care of the collection. Interest from that endowment will be used to increase staff salaries, eliminate admission fees for special exhibitions and offer evening hours in an effort to reach an under-served audience.
“A light bulb went off inside my head during the lockdown,” Bedford said.
“I realized that it’s impossible to stand behind a diversity, justice and inclusion agenda as an art museum unless you’re living those ideals within your own walls. We can’t say we’re an equitable institution just because we buy a painting by [the African American multimedia artist] Kerry James Marshall and hang it on a wall," he said.
“What’s more important is to create and model the world of inclusion he depicts in his paintings."
Deaccessioning — the art world term for selling artworks from a museum’s permanent collection — has long been controversial. Taxpayer-supported museums such as the Baltimore Museum of Art function as stewards for a city’s cultural treasures, preserving and showcasing great works of art for the public good.
This is the second time in two years that the Baltimore museum has sold artworks to enhance diversity initiatives. Seven works, including Warhol’s “Hearts,” were sold by Sotheby’s in 2018 for nearly $16.2 million.
Some question whether museums that sell seminal works are fulfilling their mission to serve the public.
Kristen Hileman, the museum’s former curator for contemporary art, said she has “strong concerns” about the BMA’s sale plans.
She described “The Last Supper” as “one of the two most important paintings by Warhol” in the BMA’s 89-work collection, along with the artist’s 1986 self-portrait. Ironically, diversity was cited as the rationale for the museum’s decision to acquire “The Last Supper” in 1989, an era when the museum had comparatively few holdings by gay artists.
The painting is made up of two halves which Hileman said “celebrate a Queer artist’s formative role in contemporary art. One would have to travel to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh to experience such a significant representation of Warhol’s late career.”
She’s no happier about the museum’s plans to sell the only painting that the BMA owns by Still, a pioneering Abstract Expressionist artist, or the 81-year-old Marden’s minimalist painting.
“Deaccessioning a work by a living artist sets a troubling precedent,” Hileman said. “It can be perceived as a negative judgment on that artist’s work and harm his career.”
Previous decisions by museums to sell off their collections have occasionally ended up in the courts. A lawsuit attempting to block the Berkshire Museum’s sale of up to 40 artworks, including one by Norman Rockwell, made it to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, which in 2018 ruled in favor of the museum.
It’s unclear if Maryland has any laws or policies governing the disposition of artworks or historical artifacts; a spokeswoman for Attorney General Brian Frosh only said, “Our office does not confirm nor deny the existence of investigations.”
The African American artist Amy Sherald, who skyrocketed to fame after being commissioned to paint former first lady Michelle Obama’s portrait, looks at the issue from the opposing perspective — as an artist whose work hangs in the BMA and as a museum trustee who voted in favor of the deaccession.
She said that if, 30 years from now, the BMA sells one of her paintings to raise money for diversity initiatives, “I would be absolutely fine with that.”
“There are a lot of different ways to serve the public,” Sherald said, “and they all take money. Change isn’t comfortable. It’s going to take people time to wrap their heads around this. But it’s absolutely necessary, and it’s pushing the museum in the right direction.”
What’s significant about the 2020 sale isn’t merely the anticipated size of the windfall, but the purposes for which Bedford plans to use the funds.
In the past, the Association of Art Museum Directors, which sets ethical standards for museums nationwide, had decreed that funds obtained from selling artworks must be used to purchase new paintings and sculptures.
But in April the association relaxed its rules in light of the financial crunch museums were facing during the pandemic and said it would condone museums to use proceeds for things associated with “direct care” of the collections.
“This is a crisis without precedent in our lifetime, with global implications and with a timeline that unfolds as we live it,” Brent Benjamin, the association’s president and director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, said in a news release. “While earned revenue has stopped and the future of charitable giving is unknown, it was important for AAMD to take a step that could provide some additional financial support to art museums.”
The struggling Brooklyn Museum announced in September that it plans to sell 12 works from its collections, including paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Gustave Courbet and Camille Corot, at Christie’s Auction House in an attempt to raise $40 million.
But the BMA isn’t operating under similar economic straits. Because the museum adopted a policy of free admission in 2006, it derives little revenue from ticket sales. Its endowment is robust. As recently as last month, the BMA announced that it has received a $5 million gift from longtime trustees Nancy Dorman and Stanley Mazaroff.
“We are not financially desperate,” Bedford said. “That is not the motivation for taking this action. This a deeply mission-driven decision.”
That’s fine with the museum directors' association, said executive director Chrsitine Anagnos, since the BMA plans to use only the interest from the new endowment to fund these initiatives and will refrain from dipping into the principal. She noted that the relaxed rules will expire on April 10, 2022.
“We’re doing this for a specific reason and for a specific period of time,” she said.
“If the BMA is using the income from the endowment and not the principal for the direct care of their collections, we are not going to question what they are doing or why they’re doing it."
Among other things, the BMA will use funds from the endowment interest to increase the starting pay for security guards from $13.50 an hour to $20 an hour by 2023, or roughly $40,000 a year.
“Equity and diversity and social justice have become incredibly important to the institution,” said Clair Zamoiski Segal, chairwoman of the BMA’s board of trustees. “That’s an important piece of what we accomplished last night, and it makes me proud.”