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Alarming Preview: Sotheby’s Hawks Baltimore Museum’s Clyfford Still & Brice Marden

Sirens (coming from the street) were heard wailing at the beginning of Sotheby’s Virtual Preview of Highlights from Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Art—a fleeting but thematically appropriate soundtrack for the alarming disposals set to occur at the auction house’s Contemporary Art auction on Wednesday evening in New York.

That startling prelude may have been edited out of the video by the time you click the link to replay the online auction preview. (The sirens began at 5 seconds into the video.) But the danger this sale poses to the integrity of museum collections in general (and the Baltimore Museum of Art’s holdings in particular) is not so easily muted.

David Galperin, Sotheby’s senior vice president and head of its New York evening sales of contemporary art, discussing the Baltimore Museums’ deaccessioned Clyfford Still
Screenshot from last week’s online preview

Now available online is Sotheby’s cataloguing for the Brice Marden and for the Clyfford Still that were consigned by the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). In case there were any doubts about the importance of the Marden to Baltimore’s curators and museumgoers, here, as published by Sotheby’s, is its history of display in the museum’s galleries:

May 2001 – June 2007; December 2009 – January 2011; November 2013 – March 2019 (long-term installation)

And here’s the Sotheby’s-published history of the museum’s public display of its Clyfford Still:

1984 – 1994; November 1994 – December 2007; July 2008 – February 2011; August 2012 – August 2013; and May 2017 – June 2018 (long-term installation)

The Marden was the signature image on the invitation for the preview (along with Giacometti‘s “Femme de Venise IV”):

Those of us who watched Sotheby’s online preview in real time on Friday were invited to pose written questions to the specialists who were making the presentations.

CultureGrrl is my name; asking questions is my game. So I posted the first question, which remained forever stranded in “Waiting-for-review” limbo:

Screenshot from Sotheby’s virtual preview of next week’s sales

The above-mentioned letter to the Maryland AG is linked in my first paragraph, here; Lehman’s full letter is here.

Truth be told, I would have been pleasantly surprised if anyone had gamely grappled with my submitted question. Sure enough, Lisa Dennison, Sotheby’s executive vice president, announced (at 34:40) that she would begin with “Question Number 2,” which allowed the specialists to field only softball lobs.

Formerly director of the Guggenheim Museum, Lisa (at upper left in the image below) served as emcee for the auction house’s online presentation of highlights from the Impressionist, modern and contemporary works being offered. I’ve known (and admired) Dennison since her days as a curator at the Guggenheim under the successive directorships of the two TomsMesser and Krens:

Screenshot of Sotheby’s officials at the virtual sales preview

This afternoon, in response to my emailed query, Lisa sent me this statement regarding my previously unanswered question:

Sotheby’s stands in full support of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s thorough deaccession process and their pioneering plans for the future of the institution. Sotheby’s sales of works on behalf of the museum will proceed as scheduled. And we are not commenting on the Warhol private sale.

Those words gave me traumatic flashbacks to her statement about one of the most widely deplored deaccessions in recent years—the Berkshire Museum’s disposals at Sotheby’s in 2017-18 to “pay down existing debt and establish reserve funds for long-term capital maintenance and to mitigate unforeseen events” (in the words of the museum’s announcement).

Here’s what Dennison told me back then:

I don’t have much to say beyond the fact that we are very happy to partner with the Berkshire Museum to help them achieve their goals and fulfill their vision for the future.

According to several recently published reports (including Peggy McGlone‘s account in the Washington Post), the plan to augment the BMA’s financial resources by monetizing its art may have backfired: “Two former museum board chairmen say they’ve rescinded planned gifts totaling $50 million,” according to McGlone. The museum countered by observing that the two resigning trustees who said they were withdrawing their pledges had never committed those intentions to writing.

In response to my query about information I received today from a tipster, a BMA spokesperson confirmed to me that the museum’s board was holding an “informal and optional” meeting today, which had been “scheduled last week.” The board’s numbers were recently thinned by resignations of two African American artists—Amy Sherald of Michelle Obama-portrait fame…

Amy Sherald at National Portrait Gallery for unveiling of the Obama portraits
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and Adam Pendleton, who said in his letter to the board that he felt “blindsided by the recent controversies.” In her letter to the board, Sherald said she had taken “umbrage for being unjustifiably highlighted” by critics of the deaccessions as being “stacked” on the board “only to be used as pawns” by the director. (As reported earlier by the Baltimore Sun, Sherald had previously expressed support for the deaccession plans.) A work by Sherald had been purchased by the BMA in 2018 with money from its first round of deaccessions under Bedford’s directorship.

When I asked the museum’s spokesperson whether any any changes in the deaccession plan were to be discussed at today’s optional board meeting, and whether the three sales (including the private sale of the monumental Warhol) would proceed as planned, she enigmatically replied:

Sorry, I don’t have any other information.

As of this writing, the Marden (estimated to hammer at $10-15 million) and the Still ($12-18 million estimate) are still on the auction house’s list of lots being offered on Wednesday night. Sotheby’s has lined up an “irrevocable bid” for each of them, which means that if (as expected) they appear on the block, they are certain to sell.

In light of the prearranged guaranteed bids and the negative publicity surrounding the BMA deaccessions, I’m guessing that those works might meet a fate similar to that of another highly controversial recent museum deaccession:

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