On Thursday, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s board of trustees voted to deaccession three blue-chip paintings to fund the museum’s ongoing diversity initiatives. The artworks to be sold are The Last Supper (1986) by Andy Warhol, 3 (1987-88) by Brice Marden and 1957-G (1957) by Clyfford Still.
In the upcoming weeks, the paintings will be sold by Sotheby’s: the Marden piece is estimated at $12-18 million, the Still piece is estimated at $10-15 million, and the Warhol piece will sell at a private auction. The works are forecasted to accumulate $65 million between the three of them.
This deaccession is possible because of the relaxation of museum guidelines by the Association of Art Museum Directors in an effort to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, the group confirmed that for the upcoming years, institutions could sell works in holdings if the income generated is used for the care of the museum collections. The Brooklyn Museum has recently announced its plans to make use of this rule change by selling 12 artworks to care for its current collection.
Baltimore Museum Of Art’s Diversity Initiatives
The deaccession of the three paintings will go to fund and expand equity and diversity initiatives at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Approximately $55 million of the revenue will go towards an endowment fund for maintaining the collection. The estimated $2.5 million annually gained from the endowment will then go to increasing salaries of the staff, funding evening hours at the museums for previously under-served audiences and lowering fees for other special exhibitions. Around $10 million will also go towards the Baltimore Museum of Art’s future acquisitions, which will prioritize post-war era artists of color.
This is not the first time that the Baltimore Museum of Art has deaccessioned pieces to increase equity; in 2018, the museum sold seven works at Sotheby’s to acquire more works by underrepresented artists. Notable works among those sold by the Baltimore Museum of Art were a Bank Job (1979) by Robert Rauschenberg, Hearts (1979) by Andy Warhol, and Green Cross (1956) by Franz Kline. The selling of these paintings raised $7.9 million, enabling the purchase of works by more diverse artists including Amy Sherald and Wangechi Mutu, among others.
The Controversy Of Deaccessions
Deaccession has proven to be a controversial topic in the recent history of museums. The Baltimore Museum of Art’s 2018 deaccession received mixed feedback, with some critics claiming that the process defied museum guidelines. Additionally, there has been controversy about the Baltimore Museum of Art’s decision to give up high-quality works by influential artists. The Baltimore Museum of Art’s former curator of contemporary art, Kristen Hileman, has expressed concern over the museum’s deaccession plans. She has identified The Last Supper as one of the “most important paintings by Warhol” in the museum’s collection, and also expressed dissatisfaction at the selling of paintings by Marden and Still, as they are prominent artists of Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism.
However, the model set by the Baltimore Museum of Art has proven ultimately influential, leading to similar deaccessions by other major institutions. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art undertook a similar project by selling a Mark Rothko painting in 2019 for $50 million. The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse also has current plans to sell a Jackson Pollock painting for $12 million this year.
The Baltimore Museum of Art’s director, Christopher Bedford, led the 2018 deaccession of works and says about the diversity initiatives: “…it’s impossible to stand behind a diversity, justice and inclusion agenda as an art museum unless you’re living with those ideals within your own walls. We can’t say we’re an equitable institution just because buy a painting by Kerry James Marshall and hang it on a wall.”