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Do not measure art’s worth by its cost | READER COMMENTARY

"Forbidden Fruit" by Mary Lovelace O'Neal is a mixed media on canvas recently acquired by the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the BMA's diversity efforts. (The Baltimore Museum of Art handout/Baltimore Sun).

As an art historian, art museum educator and college teacher, I spend considerable time explaining why the market values of art are a distraction from the intrinsic value of art. Yet a recent Baltimore Sun article describes the Baltimore Museum of Art’s recent purchases of art by women and artists of color as a “gamble” (”Baltimore Museum of Art sold seven paintings for $16.1M. The money paid for these ‘superstars’ of tomorrow,” May 10).

Christopher Bedford was hired, among other things, to bring the collection of the BMA into a multicultural, politically evolving, socially complicated 21st century in a city where white middle-class people may still constitute the majority of museum membership, but they don’t constitute a majority of the population. Selling those seven paintings in 2018 was not a rash or ill-considered act. I supported that deaccession because lesser works by artists with better examples in the collection were sold to finance acquisitions to fill in glaring gaps. The second round of deaccessioning was not well considered, and I was among the voices who rejected it.


But back to my point. The 26 works acquired were chosen for their aesthetic merit, the critical standing of the artists and that ineffable voice that speaks to us of our time, our troubles and our triumphs. Mr. Bedford rightly points out that “The right to judge which artists belong in the canon is an exercise in social power. The canonical history of art has always been controlled by the white elite.” And, may I add, most of all by men in that white elite.

Ironic, then, that Christopher Bedford, English-born, traditionally trained, fits that profile precisely and is using his position and power in that elite to make the contemporary collection at the BMA one that is darker complexioned, less male, more gender fluid.


Will the prices for these artists “skyrocket” because works were acquired by the BMA? I think skyrocket is an overstatement. Will these works of art make it into the survey texts of the coming decades? I have no idea. I am sure, however, that these artists, and others like them, will help us redefine the very concept of the “canon.”

Whether these works provide a payout on that $16.1 million “gamble” is irrelevant. Museums are not investment firms, and museum art collections are not investment instruments. The value of these works will be in what they offer the visitors — the art aficionados, the first-time visitors, the students young and old, the people of Baltimore and beyond. How many people will see themselves reflected in art for the first time? How many visitors will find that art articulates those inchoate feelings that had bedeviled them for much of their lives? How many imaginations will be validated and released?

Are these artists the “‘superstars’ of tomorrow?” Most of them have credible careers already. I got to know Fred Eversley back around 1985. I am delighted to see “Untitled” (Black Light)” among the works featured. I am pretty sure Fred, who just turned 80, would find that characterization amusing.

Ellen B. Cutler, Aberdeen

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