Baltimore Museum Says Goodbye Warhol, Hello Younger, More Diverse Collection
A piece by the artist Kerry James Marshall was auctioned off this week and became the highest selling piece by a living black artist. "Past Times," which is part painting and part collage, features black people relaxing, boating, playing croquet along a river.
Also in that auction were works by Andy Warhol and Franz Kline — they were being sold by the Baltimore Museum of Art, which is planning to use the money from the sales to acquire more pieces specifically by women and artists of color (and maybe their own version of a Kerry James Marshall.)
Bidding among the well-dressed crowd at Sotheby's auction house in New York started at over $2 million dollars for the Warhol. Called "Oxidation Painting," it's a rust colored splatter work made out of paint and urine.
When a museum sells off pieces from their collection, there's a fancy ten-dollar term for it: Deaccession. "It's a very, very long, attenuated, moderately agonizing process to deaccession, and it should be," says Christopher Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
A museum selling art is a little different from, say, you selling your old iPhone for a better one. That's because when a museum obtains a piece of art, it's making a sort of compact with the public, saying "I am buying this specifically so that you and the other people in this community can come and see it." To sell is to sort of breach that compact.
Museums often get in trouble for not deaccessioning the right way. For example, in Massachusetts recently, things got heated when the Berkshire Museum announced they'd be selling some pieces. Carol Diehl campaigned to save that art; last month she told a public TV station in New England that "It's like your mother selling your heirlooms that you're supposed to get."
The Berkshires deaccessioning was opposed by the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors — groups that make the rules for this sort of thing. Those groups did, however, give their blessing to the Baltimore Museum of Art to sell pieces by Warhol, Kline, Robert Rauschenberg and others. The idea is to make the collection better reflect the city — which is about 60 percent black.
"We're actually not saying in any sense that those white males that dominate American museum collections are an illegitimate part of history," says museum director Bedford. "They are absolutely a part of history."
To not do this is to kind of say we already know everything. It's not representing the textures and experiences and lives of those people in their community.
The pieces sold were stuff that was redundant, not shown that often, or even just kept in storage. The Baltimore museum still has plenty of Warhols, Rauschenbergs and Klines up on the walls. But with the money from the sale, Bedford is looking to acquire art by people of color and women, going back to the 1940s
"I believe we as museums have not properly represented art history, as a consequence of conscious prejudice and unconscious prejudice," he says. "It's our job now to go back, and to begin to look at those artists who meet the criteria of excellence, but who have been written out, usually based on race or gender."
"To not do this is to kind of say we already know everything," says painter Meleko Mokgosi. "It's not representing the textures and experiences and lives of those people in their community." Mokgosi has an exhibition up at the Baltimore Museum of Art right now, that happens to be about representation of black people in art. "And the Baltimore Museum is saying no, that is not the case. We don't know everything, right? The things, the histories and the people and the cultures that are already dominant in the fine arts? That's not the whole story," he says
Museum director Christopher Bedford says the museum plans on announcing what pieces they're buying with this new money at the end of the month.
This story was edited for radio by Rose Friedman and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.
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