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Deaccession Deception: Baltimore Museum’s Castoffs Leave Holes in Its Collection

Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, said all the right things in explaining his decision to deaccession seven of the museum’s works in order to purchase works “created from 1943 or later, allowing the museum to strengthen and fill gaps within its collection [emphasis added].”

Christopher Bedford

In the recent press release announcing the planned disposals, Bedford expressed the museum’s desire to build “a collection that is more relevant to the community it serves” (i.e., women and artists of color).

The problem is that in seeking to “fill gaps,” the museum appears to be opening some. Having compared the works being sold with the works by the same artists that remain in the collection (as pictured on the museum’s website), I now see that I was misled by the following claim in the museum’s announcement, which I had trusted before I fact-checked it:

Following…careful examination of the collection, …director Christopher Bedford and the BMA’s curatorial staff discovered areas of repetition among its holdings, identifying the seven works that will be sold at auction or through private sale….In each case, the museum currently holds stronger works by the same artist, and in some cases, more significant versions from the same series or stage of the artist’s career [emphases added].

Because that “careful examination,” as described, seemed to comport with the guidelines for deaccessioning promulgated by the Association of Art Museum Directors, I tweeted this:

My tweet was pegged to the unconfirmed buzz that Bedford might be under consideration as the next director of LA MOCA, the chronically unstable museum that had just announced the upcoming departure of the embattled Philippe Vergne. (“Embattled” also aptly describes the tenures of MOCA’s previous two directors—Jeffrey Deitch and Jeremy Strick.) I had expressed misgivings about Vergne’s rightness for MOCA when he was named to that post four years ago.

Having now taken the time to compare the works Baltimore deaccessioned with the ones by the same artists that remain in its collection, I’ve concluded that the museum’s press release was false advertising.

At the press preview for Sotheby’s recent contemporary sales (which I attended before I tweeted about Bedford), I viewed two Baltimore works—a Kline and a Warhol—that did strike me as possibly expendable, provided that the museum had better examples.

The museum’s Kline collection page shows 10 small works on paper or board and one medium-sized one, but no oil-on-canvas works like the one being sold. Here’s the medium-sized retained Kline, a late work:

Franz Kline, “Tragedy,” 1961, 30″ x 40″, oil on pressed paperboard

And here’s the much larger oil-on-canvas that it sold on May 16 at Sotheby’s for a hammer price of $4.4 million, far short of its $6.5-7.5 million presale estimate. (Final price, with fees, was $5.2 million):

Franz Kline, “Green Cross,” 1956, 69 3/4″ x 106″
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This didn’t strike me (or the bidders) as quintessential Kline (lacking his signature black slashes). But compared to the museum’s other works by this artist, it is closest they had, in style and impact, to his best-known paintings. (The BMA had included “Green Cross” in its 2009 Kline exhibition.)

Here’s the rational that the museum gave to me about this deaccession decision:

Our senior curator of contemporary art, Kristen Hileman, said that she and the others who participated in the decision to deaccession think Kline’s “Tragedy” [the more colorful Kline, above] is a much stronger work. It’s smaller than “Green Cross,” but it is a better composition with better use of color and more dynamism. It also came to the BMA as a gift from artist Grace Hartigan. (She’s listed by her married name Mrs. Winston H. Price.)

The Warhol situation is more in accord with the museum’s purported disposal guidelines: The BMA does own another Warhol from the “Oxidation” series, of exactly the same size—76″ x 52″:

Andy Warhol, “Oxidation Painting,” 1978

But the one that it sold had been included in the Metropolitan Museum’s 2012 Regarding Warhol exhibition, and also appeared in 2015 in a special exhibition—Pretty Raw: After and Around Helen Frankenthaler—organized by Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum while Bedford himself was director there:

Andy Warhol, “Oxidation Painting,” 1978
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Can you have too many “Oxidations”? Sometimes two similar works by the same artist can be depth, not redundancy. The museum had seen fit to show these two very different versions side-by-side in its presentation of a 2011 traveling exhibition, “Andy Warhol: The Last Decade,” as shown in Sotheby’s catalogue:

Two monumental murals—Rauschenberg‘s “Bank Job,” 1979, and Warhol’s “Hearts,” 1979—are being sold privately, not at auction, according to a Baltimore Museum spokesperson. The Rauschenberg came to the museum in 1990 when the institution that commissioned it, the Equitable Bank, Baltimore, was sold.

Their gargantuan size might have made them a tough sell at auction:

Robert Rauschenberg, “Bank Job,” 1979, solvent transfer images & fabric collage with colored mirrors, cardboard, acrylic paint & reflector on gessoed wooden construction (15 parts), 130″ x 356″ x 34″

Andy Warhol, “Hearts,” 1979, synthetic polymer paint & silkscreen ink on canvas, 116″ x 414″

In explaining the disposals of “Bank Job” and “Hearts,” the museum asserted that it had “better examples by both artists, including monumental works like Rauschenberg’s “Honorarium” and Warhol’s “Last Supper.”

Maybe so, but you can see (from the low-resolution images I pulled from the BMA’s website), that those works, while similarly monumental, are very different in character from the ones (above) that were deaccessioned:

Robert Rauschenberg, “Honorarium (Spread), 1981, 74″ X 96″ x 16”

Andy Warhol, “The Last Supper,1986, 78″ x 306”

While attending Sotheby’s preview for its contemporary art sales, I ran into Richard Aste, former curator at the Brooklyn Museum and current director of the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio. He told me he was interested in Baltimore’s deaccession experience, because he was considering whether or not to do something similar at his own institution.

He was viewing the presale exhibition with a group of museum professionals, who were guided by Eric Shiner (on the left), Sotheby’s senior vice president for contemporary art:

Richard Aste (with Eric Shiner on the left)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As the former director of the Andy Warhol Museum, Shiner was involved in a deaccession controversy of his own.

At least Baltimore intends to use the art proceeds for the right purpose—art purchases—in accordance with professional guidelines. This makes its disposals far less disturbing than those of the Berkshire Museum and the La Salle University Art Museum, which were widely condemned. But as the Kline, Warhol and Rauschenberg disposals demonstrate, there’s a risk that the depth, breadth and quality of the museum’s existing collection will be diminished in pursuit of the next new thing.

Dismissing the castoffs as “Repetitive Works,” as in the subhead of Baltimore’s press release, below, is a misleading misnomer.

We’ll be able to better judge Baltimore’s ballgame on June 20, when it plans to pitch to the public the first group of works being purchased with the funds from the auction sales.

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