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The Battle of Baltimore: Former Museum Trustees Strike Back in the Deaccession Wars

Any museum official tempted to exploit the (so-called) permanent collection as a fungible commodity for bankrolling pet projects (however worthy) and bolstering the payroll should read and take heed of this six-page letter deploring the Baltimore Museum of Art’s (BMA’s) planned disposals.

Signed and dispatched yesterday by former trustees and advisory committee members of the BMA, as well as by various local artworld luminaries, the letter calls upon Maryland’s Attorney General and its Secretary of State to investigate the museum as a consequence of its dicey decision to “deaccession three iconic works from its collection” (a plan that I deplored in this post).

Drafted (as reported today by Christopher Knight of the LA Times) by attorney Laurence Eisenstein, a former BMA trustee and former chair of the museum’s contemporary accessions committee, the letter resembles a logically argued, well-buttressed legal brief. One could envision its becoming the basis for an actual court filing, if the museum sticks to its misguided decision to sell.

Laurence Eisenstein of Eisenstein Malanchuk LLP

In their missive, the BMA’s ex-officials eloquently defend what museum trustees are entrusted to do—protect the integrity of the collection that their institution holds in public trust. Their letter calls upon state officials “to take legal action to stop the sales.”

Here’s what I got today from the AG’s office, in response to my request for comment on the letter:

We typically don’t comment on complaints to our office or actions we may or may not take in response to complaints.

Two and half hours later, the Secretary of State’s office blocked my inbox with an identical stonewall:

The Secretary of State’s Office does not typically comment on complaints or actions we may or may not take in response to complaints.  

As CultureGrrl readers know, I’ve fielded a barrage of deaccession stories over my nearly five-decade career, and Attorneys General lawyers or their spokespersons have typically felt a responsibility to inform the public about their considerations and actions.

Meanwhile, in today’s (Thursday’s) detailed response to the anti-deaccession letter, the museum stuck to its guns.

Here’s an excerpt:

The BMA’s deaccession provides fresh opportunity for curators to reshape the narratives told within its walls and to present a fairer and more fulsome art history. Equally, this effort acknowledges the museum’s dual responsibility to create an internally equitable structure and an externally equitable and mutual relationship with its diverse publics.

In Baltimore, a city whose population is 63% Black, this responsibility is particularly salient and essential to our future relevance. In our discussions about the sale of works by three well-recognized, historically anointed artists, it is critical to acknowledge the vast range of new voices that the museum will be able to share and engage through this effort.

The opponents’ letter directly grapples with this call for greater equity and diversity, and argues that those goals would be better served by keeping the three works that are being treated as disposable:

We strongly support the important stated goals of the BMA’s sale, including the acquisition of art from underrepresented groups and the desire to increase staff salaries. However, the reality is that the vast bulk of the proceeds from these sales are not [their emphasis] being dedicated to these goals, and these goals could and should be achieved through other means [emphasis added].

The letter adduces “noteworthy facts” to support the argument for keeping Warhol‘s “Last Supper”: It is “a perennial favorite of BMA visitors” and helped to “center the BMA’s contemporary collection around a Queer artist…at a time when the United States was struggling to address the AIDS crisis.” As for the Clyfford Still, it is “central to the BMA’s ability to discuss this important period of art history [Abstract Expressionism] and the art historical importance of artists who were born in Maryland and/or lived in Maryland” (from 1961-1980). Selling the museum’s only Brice Marden goes against many museums’ “explicit policy against deaccessioning works by living artists.”

You can see images of all three “disposables” in my previous post on the BMA’s planned selloff.

In its legalistic fashion, the letter delineates all the ways in which these sales run counter to the guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the College Art Association (CAA).

Then it frames the signers’ specific objections in a series of “why” questions that can have no good answers:

Why indeed? I couldn’t have said it better myself.

And in other museum deaccession news: The Brooklyn Museum’s Cranach, “Lucretia,” hammered tonight at Christie’s, New York, at a resounding $4.2 million ($5.07 million with fees), grossly underestimated at $1.2-1.8 million:

Lucas Cranach, “Lucretia,” ca. 1525-mid 1530s

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