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In securing its future, the Baltimore Museum of Art sells the past | COMMENTARY

This image is owned by The Baltimore Museum of Art; permission to reproduce this work of art must be granted in writing. Third party copyright may also be involved. User Upload Caption: Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper” is one of three painting the Baltimore Museum of Art will sell. - Original Credit:
This image is owned by The Baltimore Museum of Art; permission to reproduce this work of art must be granted in writing. Third party copyright may also be involved. User Upload Caption: Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper” is one of three painting the Baltimore Museum of Art will sell. - Original Credit: (Photography BMA / HANDOUT)

For the third time in less than three years, the Baltimore Museum of Art has caused an uproar in the art world in the name of diversification, suggesting that opinions on what a museum does with its collection are just as subjective as those regarding the actual art.

In 2018, Director Christopher Bedford sold seven works by white men to pay for the acquisition of contemporary art by women and people of color; the move was conversely described as bold, visionary and horrendous.

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In 2019, Mr. Bedford upped the ante by declaring that the museum would only acquire works by women in the following year, a policy he called “radical,” but some others saw it as “contrived,” with the potential to be “the same old tokenism we are used to.”

And this month, Mr. Bedford announced that the museum planned to sell — or “deaccession” as it’s known in the art world — three significant works of modern art, including Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper,” for an expected $65 million, which will be used to promote equity in both art and operations. Most of the money will be split into an existing endowment fund for acquisitions ($10 million) and a new endowment to be used for “direct care of the collection” ($54.5 million). The interest from that will be used to boost staff salaries across the board over the next three years to better reflect market rates (with raises ranging from 3% to 48%), offer evening hours one night a week and eliminate admission fees for two special exhibitions per year.

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Here’s what people are saying about that: It’s “creative,” “unthinkable,” “uniquely egregious” and “a troubling precedent.” Some have even called on the Maryland attorney general to intervene, sending a letter to his office (not yet received, we’re told) as well as the Maryland secretary of state.

We, however, think it’s a smart business move and a welcome recognition that the status quo isn’t going to secure any institution’s place in the future or dismantle the structural inequities of the past.

Much of the consternation over the decision is based on one of two things. The first being the creative accounting and rule interpretation the BMA is using to make it all happen. Some fear it will encourage other museums to monetize their collections and that it violates the spirit of guidelines from the Association of Art Museum Directors. We’re no experts in museum finance, but the laudable goals of the end here appear to justify the means.

The second thing is harder to quantify and is wrapped up in traditional interpretations of what constitutes museum-quality art. Deaccessioning in general is a controversial undertaking; after all, museums supported by tax dollars are supposed to preserve their holdings for the public good, not slap a for sale sign on them. And when an institution resorts to deaccessioning in order to acquire new works, it usually looks for less important art to sell or redundancies in its collection. But the BMA went for quality over quantity here, selecting Brice Marden’s “3,” Clyfford Still’s “1957-G” and Andy Warhol’s monumental 1986 silkscreen.

Though the museum outlined reasons for why it chose those pieces — chiefly that it has other works in its collection that similarly reflect the story of these periods in art history — it’s an understandably painful pill for some to swallow. And change in general is uncomfortable. But we prefer to think of it not as closing a door on certain works by these white artists of the past, but instead opening the door to including diverse artists of the future, who would not have had the opportunity to be seen and appreciated in the same way in any other time in history, along with the new audience they could attract.

When the BMA acquired Warhol’s “The Last Supper” in 1989, it was seen as a bold move to incorporate work by a gay artist. We think Warhol would understand if it were now, three decades later, repurposed to not only bring in works by diverse artists, but to raise the living standards of those charged with protecting them. That’s not going to happen on its own.

As Warhol said in his 1977 memoir, “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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