BMA's effort to be diverse is good but selling off paintings isn't
Apr 16, 2018 | 4:50 PM
For the first time in modern history, foot traffic at art museums across the nation has been dropping steadily, whereas until the turn of the 21st century, attendance had always gone up. (Ulysses Muñoz, Mary McCauley / Baltimore Sun video)
This hasn't always been the case at the BMA. In the early 1990s, I participated in a meeting with former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, held in the late sculptor Reuben Kramer's home studio, to bring this issue to the mayor's attention. At the time, the museum was in the process of phasing out yearly regional juried shows and closing its rental gallery.
However, the use of deaccession — selling seven paintings to achieve this goal of supporting local and regional contemporary art — is a horrendous decision. What is especially troubling is the somewhat jubilant and self-righteous tone surrounding what the museum is doing. Never mind the positive a spin the BMA puts on this decision such as insisting it's conducting routine museum business. Nothing could be further from reality.
The truth is that deaccession, even with the approval of the American Alliance of Museums, is considered a dirty word in the art world. The process, always surrounded by controversy and public criticism, is usually a last resort effort by an institution on the verge of bankruptcy, seeking desperately to raise cash to keep its doors open. The use of deaccession is a violation that goes right to the heart, trust and credibility of a museum's mission and obligation to preserve and protect art history.
Deaccession is a slap in the face to donors who gave artwork that has been accepted into the collection. One has to wonder, as the news spreads of the museum selling paintings by modern masters such as Franz Kline, Robert Raushenberg and Kenneth Noland, how many collectors will eliminate the BMA from consideration in donating art. Yes, in this particular instance, it's true the BMA retains other paintings by these artists. But wouldn't you think it should savor and treasure as many examples of the work of such modern masters as possible?
The feeble attempt at justifying deaccession as a past practice, referring to the BMA sale of a Mark Rothko painting in 1988 because it was receiving another Rothko as a gift, is an embarrassment to the museum. This was a blunder many people still can not believe was committed. Why in the world wouldn't the museum have wanted to have two Rothko paintings in its collection?
Instead of resorting to deaccession, the museum should put its emphasis on special fundraising through development campaigns and projects to boost the support for community and regional art. Deaccession and support of contemporary art should never be linked.
David Maril, Baltimore
The writer is president of The Herman Maril Foundation.