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Deplorable in Baltimore: Careening Down the Slippery Slope of Collection Monetization

More on this here.

Call me Cassandra.

The “slippery slope” of monetizing museum collections, which I previously prophesied would get more dangerous under the Association of Art Museum Directors’ temporarily relaxed guidelines, has just been greased.

As the planned disposals by the Brooklyn Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) make clear, some institutions will treat AAMD’s lenience as a license to make highly questionable choices—both in how they define the purposes for which deaccession proceeds can be properly applied and in how they select works to be removed from the public domain for the purpose of raising funds.

As required by AAMD, both institutions have posted their own definitions of “direct care of collections”—the only purpose other than acquisitions for which museums are allowed to apply sale proceeds under the recently relaxed guidelines. (Brooklyn’s “direct care” explanation is here; Baltimore’s is here.) Both museums regard staffing costs (i.e., salaries) as eligible for support from the proceeds of art sales.

As I recently did with one of the works deemed expendable by the Brooklyn Museum, let’s examine whether Baltimore’s three “disposables” are appropriate candidates for being sent to market:

The Clyfford Still was given to the BMA by the artist himself (shades of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s recently deaccessioned Rothko):

Clyfford Still, “1957-G,” 1957
Gift of the artist

One has to assume that this sale violates the “donor intent” of the artist, as has happened with Still before.

The “expendable” Marden happens to be the BMA’s only painting by that artist:

Brice Marden, “3,” 1987-1988

The fact that Marden is still alive makes Baltimore’s disposal even more problematic: “You don’t deaccession living artists. It would just be the wrong thing to do,” Anne Pasternak, the Brooklyn Museum’s director, recently told Robin Pogrebin of the NY Times in discussing what works her museum had chosen to monetize in its first round of disposals under AAMD’s loosened standards.

AAMD is vexingly vague on this point in Professional Practices in Art Museums, its detailed guidebook delineating best practices: “In the case of [disposals of] work(s) by a living artist, special considerations may apply [emphasis added].”

The BMA sought to justify unloading the Marden on the grounds that it still retains a number of prints by the artist. But they don’t compensate for the loss of a painting, even if that castoff is “considered transitional, moving from a moment of stasis en route to the larger paintings immediately following,” in the words of the description sent to me by the museum.

Below is what appears to be one of the better examples of the BMA’s remaining Mardens—a gift from the artist himself, in honor of Brenda Richardson, the BMA’s former deputy director and chief curator, who is best known for her superlative shows of contemporary art:

Brice Marden, “Zen Study 4,” 1991
Etching with liftground aquatint

As it happened, Richardson was contacted by Sebastian Smee and Peggy McGlone of the Washington Post for her comment about the planned BMA disposals:

Brenda Richardson, the former BMA curator who acquired the Warhol for the museum, told The Washington Post that she was “horrified” by the decision. “Nothing short of horrified. I would think that such a thing would be unthinkable.”

Here’s that Warhol:

Andy Warhol, “The Last Supper,” 1986

Ironically, Richardson is directly acknowledged in the BMA’s press release about its deaccession plans for her key role in building the museum’s “significant post-war and modern art collection with important examples of Abstract Expressionism, Post-Minimalism, and late works by Warhol.”

What would be laughable (were it not so sad) is that just two years ago, Christopher Bedford, director of the BMA, had cited the museum’s ownership of the above Warhol as justification for selling another (very different) monumental work by that artist (Hearts,” 1979), as part of a seven-work selloff to raises funds for the purchase of works “to strengthen and fill gaps within its collection.”

Now another gap is being created.

At the time when the seven Baltimore deaccessions were announced, I wrote this after analyzing the “comparable” works remaining in the collection:

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.

Although AAMD’s extraordinary action was intended to mitigate “the extensive negative effects of the current [pandemicrelated] crisis on the operations and balance sheets of many art museums” (in the words of the association’s statement), Baltimore stretched this to the breaking point: As described here, it intends to apply some of the proceeds to an ambitious new undertaking—“the creation and implementation of a comprehensive institutional plan for internal and external diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) initiatives.”

While these goals are undeniably laudable, they cannot be properly characterized as “direct care of the collection”—the purpose envisioned by AAMD. Here’s how the BMA intends to use part of its expected $65-million windfall from the sales:

Anticipated initiatives include in-depth staff training on critical subjects such as unconscious bias, accessibility, and cultural competency; increased professional development opportunities to help establish a pipeline to sustainable museum careers; and the development and enactment of an institutional DEAI roadmap for both internal equity and external engagement.

A BMA spokesperson told me, in response to my query, that her museum had “informed AAMD of its plans in advance of the announcement, and AAMD affirmed that the plans are in line with the [deaccession] resolution.”

When I asked Brent Benjamin, AAMD’s current president and director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, for clarification on what constitutes “direct care” for the purpose of the association’s relaxed guidelines for use of deaccession proceeds, he ducked:

We made the conscious decision to allow museums to create their own direct care policies, provided that they were in accord with the AAM’s [American Alliance of Museums’] white paper on this topic, and recognizing that there might be differences from institution to institution.

So what does AAM say about this? Its guidelines for Direct Care of Collections: Ethics, Guidelines and Recommendations state (p. 7) that direct care consists of “enhancing [collections’] life, usefulness or quality and thereby ensuring they will continue to benefit the public.” Nowhere does it indicate that defraying employees’ salaries, let alone instituting new DEAI initiatives, belong under that rubric.

It seems clear to me that AAMD needs to revisit its relaxation of deaccession restrictions to make clear that it is intended only to help museums survive the pandemic’s unprecedented financial challenges (as initially characterized), not to give directors the financial means to pursue pet projects or to jettison works that belong in the public domain in order to acquire the next new thing.

To me, the best way of judging whether a work should remain in the public domain is to examine its exhibition record, including the time that it’s been on view in the galleries of the museum that owns it. At my request, the BMA provided me with that information for the works it’s about to offload.

You be the judge:

Clyfford Still, “1957-G,” 1957

  • On view Hooper Gallery prior to 1994
  • On view continuously from November 1994 to December 2007
  • On view continuously from July 2008 to February 2011
  • On view August 2012 to August 2013
  • On view May 2017 to June 2018
  • In storage 8 of the past 19 years

Brice Marden, “3,” 1991

  • On view continuously from May 2001 to June 2007
  • On view from December 2009 to January 2011
  • On view from November 2013 to March 2019
  • In storage 7 of the past 19 years

Andy Warhol, “The Last Supper,” 1986

  • On view from July 1989 until July 2009 when it was removed for loan to touring Warhol exhibition, December 2010-2012
  • On view October 2012 to July 2018
  • In storage since July 2018 (2 years, 1 month)

The BMA also told me that the Warhol “was purchased by the BMA in 1989 with funds used from the 1998 sale of Mark Rothko’s painting “Olive over Red.” I guess that means that “The Last Supper” is a deaccession of a work acquired through a previous deaccession. What goes around comes around?

Next year, AAMD is due for its once-a-decade revision of its guidebook, Professional Practices in Art Museums. When it comes to deaccessioning, there should be a lot for the directors to talk about…

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