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Deaccession Dejection: Whither the Embattled Baltimore Museum of Art? (plus: Brooklyn’s castoffs)

The sorry tale of of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s (BMA’s) deaccession debacle, chronicled on this blog in real time in successive posts (six links), got a comprehensive recap on Sunday from the indispensable Sebastian Smee and Peggy McGlone of the Washington Post.

Their main takeaway from this saga is that “the still-reverberating controversy didn’t just leave [Christopher] Bedford [the BMA’s director] licking his wounds and the BMA with a crisis of governance. It has left American museums in the dark about how to interpret the rules around selling art from their collections—an increasingly tempting option in an era that combines acute budget shortfalls with a booming art market.”

Christopher Bedford

As I have argued, the reputations not only of the BMA, but also of the Association of Art Museum Directors are at risk: The AAMD, regarded as the primary arbiter of art-museum ethics. was too lax in defining what was and was not intended by its temporary loosening of deaccession standards to allow use of art-sale proceeds to fund not just acquisitions, but also “the direct care of the museum’s collection.”

The determination of what does and does not constitute “direct care” was left up to the individual museum, thereby greasing what I have called “the slippery slope.” The BMA’s own definition of “direct care of the collection” encompasses expenditures for a wide range of activities: Research, conservation, documentation, exhibition and storage of the permanent collection, including the costs of supplies and equipment, and even staff salaries and benefits can be supported by selling art under the museum’s broad definition of “direct care.”

To put it crudely (but accurately): “Care of the collection,” including staff salaries, can be underwritten by raiding the collection. And works deemed important by the museum’s public and by yesterday’s museum directors and curators can be monetized to fund the collecting priorities of those currently in charge. For example, the BMA last year announced “a commitment to exclusively purchase [emphasis added] works by female-identifying artists in 2020.”

Below is the most monumental (and arguably most important) of Baltimore’s three white-male “disposables.” It was a prized acquisition under former BMA director Arnold Lehman (who later directed the Brooklyn Museum):

Andy Warhol, “The Last Supper,” 1986

What Smee, McGlone, the BMA and CultureGrrl have all failed to answer definitively (although, in my case, not for lack of trying) is whether the sales of those three works (which also included the museum’s only Brice Marden and a Clyfford Still donated by the artist himself) have been merely “paused” (in the words of the museum’s press release), or whether those sales have been canceled (as reported by Deborah Vankin of the LA Times and others).

The BMA’s press spokesperson, Anne Mannix Brown, always prompt, friendly and informative in answering my pesky queries, was uncharacteristically tight-lipped when asked by me for clarification of whether the sales were canceled or merely postponed: “The BMA is not providing any further comments on this subject,” she replied, presumably as instructed by higher-ups.

Trying to find a way around this stonewall, I performed three searches on the museum’s Collection website, in an effort to determine if any of the “Baltimore Three” had been re-accessioned. At this writing, none of them have reappeared in the collection database, suggesting that “pause” (in anticipation of a quiet disposal?) may be the operative word.

Meanwhile, the BMA itself is on “pause,” giving it an opportunity to rethink and regroup: Due to the Virus Crisis, it closed to the public on Nov. 26, with plans to reopen Jan. 6.

The fallout from this contretemps has been substantial: As reported by the Washington Post and others, some of the museum’s trustees have resigned and/or rescinded pledges that were not yet consummated. Subtly mocked by Smee and McGlone as “a well-dressed, smooth-talking Englishman” (they’d better not belittle a female director that way), Bedford needs to repair a damaged professional reputation, having been publicly reprimanded by distinguished colleagues from sister institutions. He assumed his current post in 2016, succeeding Doreen Bolger, the museum’s widely respected 17-year director.

And while film director John Waters has decided to proceed with his plans to bequeath some 372 works from his collection to the BMA (his hometown museum), he encumbered his gift with one burdensome restriction: Nothing can be sold.

As reported by Ted Loos in the NY Times, Waters singled out the rescued Marden as “a favorite piece he has had dreams about.”

Brice Marden, “3,” 1987-1988

Kristen Hileman, a former BMA curator quoted by the Washington Post, noted that “Marden is still alive. Selling works by living artists is widely considered bad museum practice because it signals to the market a lack of faith in the artists that can adversely affect their careers.”

Like Waters, future potential donors, spooked by the deaccession debacle, may similarly seek to tie the museum’s hands before turning over their holdings (some of which, especially in the case of large collections, may be of inferior quality).

Meanwhile, in other deaccession news: Monet’s “Vernon, soleil” sold on Tuesday at Sotheby’s by the Brooklyn Museum “to Support Museum Collections” (in the words of the catalogue description), fetched a $3.9-million hammer price, slightly short of its $4-million low estimate of hammer price (final price, with fees: $4.73 million).

The sale of this gauzy painting was a foregone conclusion, thanks to a prearranged guarantee and irrevocable bid:

Monet, “Vernon, soleil,” 1894
Sold at Sotheby’s for $4.73 million

The Brooklyn Museum had sold another Monet at Sotheby’s on Oct. 28, also “to Support Museum Collections”: “Les Îles à Port-Villez,” estimated at $2.5-3.5 million, achieved a final total (with fees) of $4.62 million, also protected by a guarantee and irrevocable bid:

Monet, “Les Îles à Port-Villez,” 1897
Sold at Sotheby’s for $4.62 million

Both Monets were sold in compliance with the AAMD’s relaxed guidelines. But my search on the Brooklyn Museum’s collection website turned up only three remaining paintings by Monet still on the premises, two of which date later and one earlier than these two 1890s examples, which means that they cannot be easily dismissed on the grounds of redundancy. Museums taking advantage of the relax guidelines are still supposed to observe its “Criteria for Deaccessioning and Disposal” (beginning on p. 21 of Professional Practices in Art Museums), which do not appear to be met by the Baltimore Three.

Although they are likely the “two lesser Monets” that a tipster had told me back in September were on Brooklyn’s hit-list for disposal, I think that the museum, which mounted several outstanding Monet shows under earlier leadership, is the poorer for having lost them. Both had extensive exhibition histories—in loan shows and at their Brooklyn home, where I have seen and admired them.

Which brings us to what is, for me, the main consideration in the deciding how to approach the deaccession dilemma: Those of us who are the most devoted fans of particular museums—the hometown art-lovers and other repeat visitors—crave the chance to return to certain works that, for us, are treasured touchstones. (In Waters’ case, that was the Marden.)

The current vogue for transient installations and disposable holdings threatens to turn the “permanent collection” into an oxymoron.

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