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Trend Bender: Baltimore Museum’s “Canon Correction” Needs Correction

In the interests of “canon correction” (as he calls it), Christopher Bedford, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s director, is doing the wrong things for the right reasons: He has acquired seven recent works (five of which were created within the last two years) with some of the proceeds of sales from the BMA’s collection of seven older contemporary works by artists who have stood the test of time.

To my mind, Bedford’s admirable ends don’t justify the means. He is intent on acquiring of-the-moment works by men and women of color, exemplified by the painting below by a Baltimore artist who recently rocketed to fame and was given a seat on the BMA’s board of trustees:

Amy Sherald, “Planes, rockets, and the spaces in between,” 2018
Photo courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art

As he explained in his recent opinion piece for Frieze, Bedford’s goal is to redress “both conscious and unconscious gender and race-based biases as powerful determining factors” in forming his museum’s collection. Acquiring works by “men and women of color,” he said, has an “urgent dimension,” because “Baltimore is a black majority city.”

His canon cannon gave me traumatic flashbacks to previous deaccessions (here and here) by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which used proceeds from works by Edward Hopper, Childe Hassam, Maurice Prendergast, among others, to bankroll a similar canon correction.

My take on PAFA’s disposals also applies to the BMA sales:

[Museums] shouldn’t be selling museum-quality works in general and important historic works in particular to fill perceived gaps regarding contemporary art and works by women and by artists of color. They should acquire those works through donations and by using their purchase endowment, or by selling works that, because of poor quality or condition, have no business being in the collection in the first place.

The BMA notes that its new acquisition is the first work created by Amy Sherald since her commission to paint Michelle Obama‘s portrait for the National Portrait Gallery’s collection:

L to R: Kim Sajet, director, National Portrait Gallery; artist Kehinde Wiley; Barack Obama; Michelle Obama; artist Amy Sherald; David Skorton, secretary, Smithsonian Institution
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The BMA’s barely dry Sherald “signals an exciting departure in her practice, as it sees two figures in enlarged scale and outdoor landscape,” according to last week’s press release announcing the acquisitions. To my eyes, this “exciting departure” seems less riveting (although I haven’t seen it in person) than her single-subject portraits, like the one I saw displayed at the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington:

Amy Sherald, “Grand Dame Queenie,” 2013
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Also acquired through the BMA’s use of recent deaccession proceeds were works by Isaac Julien, Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, Wangechi Mutu, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and the work below by the late Jack Whitten, which Bedford brashly trumpeted (in an interview with artnet‘s Julia Halperin) as “the most significant acquisition I’ll ever make for a museum”:

Jack Whitten, “9.11.01,” 2006
Photo courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art

As described by the museum, its prized Whitten “incorporates bone fragments and blood, sourced from a butcher shop, as well as ash and molten materials from the site of the [World Trade Center] tragedy [which Whitten witnessed from his studio] into a composition that includes a pyramid that memorializes the dead.” Whitten is currently the subject of a BMA exhibition focusing primarily on his sculpture.

I’m an admirer of Whitten, and also of Bedford, whom I interviewed here, at the time of his appointment to direct Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum. There have been rumors in the wake of the resignation by Philippe Vergne that Bedford is being considered for the directorship of MOCA, Los Angeles. I think he’d be a great fit…perhaps more so than he is for a wide-ranging museum like the BMA.

In orchestrating the BMA’s disposals and purchases, Bedford showed due deference to the Association of Art Museum Directors’ basic principles (pp. 21-24) for use of deaccession proceeds. But as I noted in my previous post on the BMA’s disposals, the unintended effect of the his attempt to fill the gaps may have been to open new ones, most notably with the $5.2-million sale at Sotheby’s of its monumental painting by Franz Kline that, compared to the museum’s other works by that artist, most embodies his signature slashing style:

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

What’s more, holding on to more than one unique work from an artist’s series can be seen as depth, not redundancy. But Bedford regarded the disposal of one of its two Warhol “Oxidation” paintings, to create a “war chest” for future acquisitions, as a sacrifice worth making.

In its guidelines, AAMD states (p. 9) that deaccession decisions “must be governed by the museum’s written policy rather than by exigencies of the moment [emphasis added].” A 2001 version of AAMD’s “Professional Practices in Art Museums” (no longer online, but on my bookshelf) is more specific about deaccession no-nos:

Both the deaccessioning and the disposal of a work of art from a museum’s collection require exceptional care and should reflect policy rather than reaction to the exigencies of a particular moment. Standards applied to deaccessioning and disposal must be at least as stringent as those applied to the acquisition process and should not be subject to changes in fashion and taste [emphasis added].

Perhaps the authors of the revised guidelines believed that disposals’ not being “subject to changes in fashion and taste” went without saying. But the BMA’s recent descent into trendiness demonstrates that the fashion-and-taste warning may bear repeating.

I wouldn’t want to place any bets on whether another work acquired with deaccession funds—this light box photograph by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, an offshoot of a 2017 film, “In The Body of the Sturgeon” (also acquired) that the BMA co-commissioned with the Tate Liverpool—will stand the test of time. (That said, Adrian Searle of the Guardian recently praised their work as “peculiar, disturbing, erudite.”):

Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley,” Gaudy Night,” 2017
Photo Courtesy of Baltimore Museum or Art

Notwithstanding the undeniable importance of contemporaneity, the lure of “out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new” is a temptation to be resisted. The new hits should complement the old standards, not deplete them. A BMA spokesperson told me last week that her museum had no plans for additional deaccessions to bankroll “canon correction.”

The biggest danger of the BMA’s dicey gambit is that the contemporary contagion may spread, compromising other institutions. It’s a lot easier for forward-looking directors to monetize older works than to fundraise for the acquisition of new ones.

But wooing donors of art and money is a major part of what directors are hired to do. For this, BMA directors have had an exemplary role model in the legendary Adelyn Breeskin, the resourceful first female director of a major American art museum, who famously beat out the Museum of Modern Art’s Alfred Barr in competition for the avant-garde Cone Collection, which has been a popular Baltimore attraction ever since.

Then again, as a Baltimore native and longtime BMA staffer, Breeskin had the contacts to hit the ground running as director. Bedford, in Baltimore for less than two years, may need more time to cultivate patronage.

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