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The BMA Deaccessions: Lessons From A Fine Art Feud

Credit The BMA
The Baltimore Museum of Art

UPDATE: Just hours before a scheduled auction, the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees voted Wednesday to temporarily suspend the controversial sales of three major works from its collection, according toThe Baltimore Sun. The text of a statement released by the Board is posted at the bottom of this page.

A few weeks ago on this program, host Tom Hallspoke with the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Christopher Bedford, about the museum’s plans to "deaccession," or sell, three major works in its collection to raise as much as $65 million dollars to fund the BMA’s diversity and equity programs.  The proceeds of the deaccessioning will be used to purchase art by women and people of color, and to give salary increases to museum staff, including the security guards and others who are currently making about $13.50 per hour.

The public auction of two of the works, paintings by Clyfford Still("1957-G") and Brice Marden("3"), was scheduled for this evening at Sotheby’s auction house in New York. Ever since it was announced earlier this month, the plan to remove these works from the BMA’s collection and sell them in the private art market has been vehemently opposed by many in the art world.  Yesterday, a professional organization that maintains guidelines about criteria that must be met for a museum to deaccession works from its collection sent an email indicating that the BMA, and other museums, are not adhering to those guidelines...

In addition to the auction of the paintings by Still and Marden, the BMA plan includes the sale of a large silk screen by Andy Warhol, titled "The Last Supper."  As of yesterday, it was unclear whether or not that sale would move forward.  Sotheby’s had guaranteed a sale price of the Warhol workof at least $40 million dollars.  The Still and Marden paintings are expected to earn between $12 and $18 million dollars at auction.

Copyrighted images of the three paintings being sold by the BMA can be seen in the slide show, above.

Criticism and legal challenges to the plan have come from some current and former board members, and some prominent art critics.  We will hear from one of those former board members today.  

We had also hoped to speak today with Clair Zamoiski Segal, who serves as the chair of the BMA Board of Trustees, but she is meeting with the Board of the BMA at this hour, and unable to join us.  

Tom's first guest is Laurence Eisenstein. He’s a lawyer, an art collector and a former BMA trustee.  Mr. Eisenstein has been closely involved in the efforts by opponents to stop the deaccession of these three paintings and press the museum to find other ways to fund its diversity and equity programs.  Laurence Eisenstein joins us on Zoom.

Later in the show, Tom talks with Cara Ober, the founding editor and publisher of BMore Art, a highly respected journal of the Baltimore arts scene, about what lessons can be learned in the current controversy about the relationship between an art museum and the community it serves.  Some of Cara's recent writing on the issue can be found here.

Credit Laurence Eisenstein/Cara Ober
Laurence Eisenstein, attorney, art collector, former BMA trustee. Cara Ober, artist and founding editor/publisher of BMoreArt.

We also welcome listener calls and comments via email and Twitter.


Here is the text of the statement released Wednesday by the BMA Board of Trustees:

Today, The Baltimore Museum of Art’s (BMA) Board of Trustees and its leadership decided to pause on the upcoming sale of works by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still, and Andy Warhol. The decision was made after having heard and listened to the proponents and the detractors of the BMA’s ambitious Endowment for the Future and after a private conversation between the BMA’s leadership and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). 

As part of today’s statement, we want to affirm our goals as we envisioned them in relation to the Endowment for the Future. We believe unequivocally that museums exist to serve their communities through experiences with art and artists. We firmly believe that museums and their collections have been built on structures that we must work, through bold and tangible action, to reckon with, modify, and reimagine as structures that will meet the demands of the future. We believe that this effort is not about sacrificing history but about telling a more accurate and complete narrative of art, culture, and people. We do not abide by notions that museums exist to serve objects; we believe the objects in our collection must reflect, engage, and inspire the many different individuals that we serve.

The BMA was in touch with the AAMD leadership early this fall in advance of announcing its plans for the Endowment for the Future. In private and public statements, the AAMD affirmed that the BMA’s plans were in alignment and accordance with the resolutions it passed in April 2020. However, subsequent discussions and communications have made clear that we must pause our plans to have further, necessary conversations. The BMA is committed to the governance AAMD provides for the museum community.

This year has required great fortitude and great questioning. The calls for change within the museum field are right and just. For far too long, museums have made superficial efforts in enacting change. We have used exhibitions and programs to support the idea that we are diverse and inclusive. We are not. We have said change is important, but we have not taken the steps to enact it. The Endowment for the Future was developed to take action—right now, in this moment.

Our vision and our goals have not changed. It will take us longer to achieve them, but we will do so through all means at our disposal. That is our mission and we stand behind it.

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