As scholars and curators at The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), we feel compelled to respond to criticism about the museum’s decision to the deaccession of works by Clyfford Still, Brice Marden and Andy Warhol. “Deaccession” is a word little-known outside of museum circles. Typically defined as “the official removal of an item from a museum in order to sell it,” the word covers complex curatorial decisions, bureaucratic processes and financial systems. At the same time, the word evokes a host of reactions, attitudes and presumptions, and that is what we seek to illuminate.
First, we want to acknowledge the sense of loss that some community members feel around works of art that have been in the collection for a number of years. These works are indeed meaningful, and we have recognized the difficulties of closing a chapter during our rigorous selection process and numerous presentations and discussions. Deaccessioning, however, is not a judgment about individual art objects, but an assessment of context, the way they function in a collection that continues to change over time.
Museums regularly remove works of art from their collections, an intensive and multi-tiered process that entails research, deliberation, and the approval of curatorial staff or the board of trustees at every step along the way. Deaccessioning is also an extraordinary opportunity for curators to shape a world within the museum’s walls, one that responds to the present, and looks forward to the future.
Every inch of wall space telegraphs a museum’s values — whom we esteem and whom we exclude. For decades, installations in our contemporary art wing have largely told a single story, largely defined by white males. Today, we are reshaping this narrative to render a fully multi-dimensional art history, building on the past three years of acquisitions, exhibitions and programs focused on Black artists, as well as a year devoted exclusively to female-identifying artists.
The BMA’s already outstanding collection is made even stronger with the addition of major paintings by artists like Norman Lewis, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, and Jack Whitten, who are not household names, but should be, and who expand the story of painting told by the many abstract expressionist artists long held in the collection, including Willem de Kooning, Mark Tobey, Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan. To put it simply, this is not an either/or situation, but a both/and — together these artists reshape our perspective on art’s possibilities and its relevance. Equity and diversity make history fairer, more accurate and more meaningful in the present.
From its founding to the present moment, the BMA has always believed that the mission of the museum is civic. Most recently, at a moment of great historical change inside and outside art institutions, we have understood that this entails a dual responsibility to create an internally equitable structure and an externally equitable and mutual relationship with the public. The inside operations and the outside face of the museum must work together to realize its vision. And it is vision, not financial desperation, that drives this deaccessioning. Rather than reducing the budget, endowing collection care frees up funds to enact initiatives fundamental to our mission to serve all of Baltimore: continuing to build a deeper and more diverse art collection; offering free admission for all exhibitions; providing evening hours; establishing diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion programs to restructure the museum’s staffing; and providing long overdue salary equity across the institution.
Too many who criticize the deaccessioning fail to consider which authorities and stakeholders are speaking, continuing to exclude those who have been historically excluded. They ignore not only the voices of the larger Baltimore public, but also educators, colleagues and BMA staff and committee members, many from under-represented backgrounds. These individuals have expressed strong support for the deaccession, and for the possibilities for new, multiple and significant narratives that resonate with all of Baltimore.
There is a just and timely demand that public institutions treat everyone who walks through their doors equally, whether visitors or employees. The BMA can lead the way in demonstrating that museums are not mausoleums or treasure houses, but are living organisms, oriented to the present as well as the past.
Asma Naeem (email@example.com) is the Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator at The Baltimore Museum of Art and Katy Siegel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Senior Curator for Research and Programming at The Baltimore Museum of Art and Thaw Chair at Stony Brook University.