Everyone can sympathize with the Baltimore Museum of Art’s goal to better pay its security staff, but at what cost? Hats off to former curator Kristen Hileman for speaking out against the museum’s decision to sell three important 20th-century paintings (“Baltimore Museum of Art to sell 3 paintings, including Warhol’s ‘The Last Supper,’ to fund diversity initiatives,” Oct. 2).
Two significant misunderstandings about what museums are seem to have contributed to the decision. One is the failure to appreciate the degree to which great museums are layered institutions — ones that not only reflect the judgments of the current management but also inform us about the values of previous generations. The other misunderstanding concerns the very nature of a museum. In regard to Brice Marden’s “3,” BMA Director Christopher Bedford told the The New York Times, “Marden’s contribution to the history of art is more richly narrated in our works on paper holdings than a single painting.” But the function of the museum is only incidentally to narrate Mr. Marden’s contributions. Its primary function is to provide experiences and the experience of a painting 5-by-7 feet in size will never be matched by a row of prints.
Many will remember that, at the time Andy Warhol’s “Last Supper” was acquired in 1989, Chief Curator Brenda Richardson made statements suggesting that he was less a painter for the ages than one who exemplified the Zeitgeist. Nevertheless, those of us who have paid subsequent visits to the “Last Supper,” with all its enigmas, are aware of its staying power.
Marden’s "3″ and Clyfford Still’s “1957-G” also provide experiences, but in addition, they have resonances for those who think of the Baltimore Museum of Art as a regional museum. One of the most important of the abstract expressionists, Clyfford Still bought a farmhouse outside Westminster in 1961, and he gave “1957-G” to the BMA in 1969. After his death in 1980, his widow jealously guarded all the paintings in the estate, insisting that they should remain together and be exhibited in a dedicated museum in a city. At various points, it was hoped that the collection could go to Western Maryland (now McDaniel) College or be brought to Baltimore, but in the end, Mayor John Hickenlooper was instrumental in the creation of a museum in Denver. As a result, few museums own works by Mr. Still, and those that do, treasure them.
Brice Marden also has Maryland connections. His grandfather Charles Carroll Marden was born in Baltimore, and from 1904 to 1916, he taught at Johns Hopkins University, holding the first professorship of Spanish to be established in the United States. Not a crucial element in experiencing the 1987﹘88 painting “3,” but one not to be altogether disregarded either.
Hiram Woodward, Baltimore
The writer is the Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Quincy Scott Curator of Asian Art Emeritus at The Walters Art Museum.
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