Skip to main content

As Museums Push to Sell Art, Competing Ideas About Deaccessioning Are Playing Out in Public

“Museum directors, as a convention, learn art history in the classroom, and they learn economic management in practice,” Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, said by phone in mid-October. “The big revelation, for me, is that my greatest act of creativity is now an economic one, as opposed to a conventionally defined creative one.”

It was a whirlwind moment for Bedford. In a few days, two works from the museum’s collection were set to hit the block at Sotheby’s in New York—its only Clyfford Still and Brice Marden paintings—and the auction house was offering Andy Warhol’s Last Supper (1986) privately. The sales were estimated to net $65 million. His plan was to plow about $55 million into an endowment that would generate $2.5 million a year to cover collection care. That would allow him to put the same amount toward salary increases ($13.50 per hour to $20 for guards, for one), extended hours, and other initiatives. The remaining $10 million would go toward a more diverse collection.

Even for a museum with a robust endowment of around $140 million, it would be a huge injection of capital. During the coronavirus lockdown, Bedford had been mulling how to make “equity, diversity and inclusion, and justice lived experiences within the museum,” he said. In the pandemic’s early days, as the economy tanked and museum leaders braced for budget shortfalls, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) had loosened its restrictions on selling art. Bedford believed that the museum could make huge strides selling just those three works.

But very quickly, opponents of the sale—including former BMA board members and staffers—were gaining traction. Bedford’s goals were admirable, they said, but he was betraying the museum field. It is the job of museums to protect art. Patrons and artists would think twice about donating art, or money, if they believed that works in the collection could become a funding stream at a director’s whim. Accusations of impropriety were made, with some asking the Maryland attorney general to investigate. The BMA was now “the leading poster child for art collection carelessness,” wrote Christopher Knight, the Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic, who has long condemned major museum sales.

Brice Marden’s 3 (1987–88).
Brice Marden’s 3 (1987–88) was also part of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s intended to sell before hitting “pause” on its plans. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020.

“What we are doing is not for everyone, including the Christopher Knights of the world,” Bedford said. “There is a pressing, pressing, pressing need for change within institutions in this country, because we have been failing in our mission of providing the right kind of service.” He was blunt: “We’ve kept our walls so high and so elite, that we’ve failed democratically.”

Bedford’s plan was aggressive, but it was not necessarily apostasy. In 2018 he had sold seven paintings by white men already well represented in the BMA collection—Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland, and Warhol, among them—raising $16.2 million to diversify its holdings. Major pieces by Jack Whitten, Wangechi Mutu, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and others took their place. The AAMD had paved the way for his latest move by suspending its sanctions against museums that sell art for purposes other than acquisitions. The suspension meant that museums could use income from funds established by selling art for “direct care” of their collections, as each defined that phrase.

The AAMD framed its actions as recognition that the financial disruption caused by the pandemic could be so severe that museums might need to take extraordinary measures. Baltimore was not financially strained, but speaking with the New York Times, AAMD executive director Christine Anagnos said the move was allowed. “They are using the money that was once used for direct collection care to invest in a range of equity initiatives essential to [the museum’s] mission,” she said. And as Bedford was defending his sale against mounting opposition, the Brooklyn Museum was pursuing its own major campaign of sales.

Exterior view of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The Baltimore Museum of Art’s plan to raise $65 million for inclusion initiatives put it museum at the center of a vigorous industry-wide debate about deaccessioning. Mitro Hood.

While they tend not to advertise it widely, museums regularly part with work for all sorts of reasons, and use any proceeds to buy art that they want. There may be a redundancy—if curators acquire a finer print of the same photograph, the lesser one goes. (This is generally uncontroversial.) Material once accepted as a gift may not relate to its actual mission, like a shrunken monkey head that found its way into one museum of American art. (Ditto.) Or curators may decide an artist is over-represented, or unimportant, and do some pruning. (More controversial, potentially.)

Deaccessioning has also been used to reorient museums entirely, which is when the controversy level can shoot up. In the 1960s, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis began selling 19th-century art amassed by its founder, Thomas Barlow Walker, so that it could focus on buying contemporary art. There were complaints, but it is now recognized as a leader in that field.

Cover of Martin Gammon’s book, Deaccessioning and Its Discontents.
Martin Gammon’s book, published in 2018 by the MIT Press, charts a 400-year history of museums selling their holdings. Courtesy MIT Press.

There are also less heartening tales. In the United States, after the Second World War, some university institutions “sold off masterpieces left and right” while reconceiving their collections “and it wasn’t a very good plan,” said Martin Gammon, an art adviser and former director at Bonhams auction house. His 2018 book Deaccessioning and Its Discontents (MIT) charts a history of the practice in England from the 1600s forward.

The rules of the AAMD stipulate that funds from a museum’s art sales can go only toward the acquisition of more art: their so-called permanent collections must not be monetized to cover other expenses. “We hold these collections in trust for the public,” said Brent R. Benjamin, who has served as AAMD president since 2019, and who is director of the St. Louis Art Museum in Missouri.

The bureaucratic rules that undergird this state of affairs are wonky, but their effects are profound. The Financial Accounting Standards Board, which sets accounting rules for organizations public, private, and nonprofit, says that museums do not need to list the value of their artworks in their financial documents. It issued that decision in the early 1990s, after museum leaders argued that appraisals were pointless since they preserve art, they don’t sell it to operate. That arrangement rankles some outside the museum world. “You can’t just pretend you don’t have assets entrusted with you,” said Michael O’Hare, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s called for museums to be required to value their art, “so then we can ask, Are you doing a good job with this stuff we gave you?”

Last April, Benjamin announced the AAMD’s dramatic shift: for two years, it would suspend sanctions for some rule-breaking. Because museums were facing revenue drops—they were unable to sell tickets, and the stock-market drop could hamper donors—they could use income from deaccessioning funds for collection care.

Exterior of the Brooklyn Museum in 2020, with a lettering campaign on its steps, encouraging people to wear masks and vote, among other things.
The Brooklyn Museum sold more than 20 works during the fall 2020 auctions, with more sales planned for the future.

Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, had been hoping for that signal. A year earlier, FASB ruled that deaccessioning proceeds could fund “direct care,” aligning with the policy of the American Alliance of Museums, which accredits U.S. museums of all kinds. (Meaning: a dinosaur museum can sell a T-rex skeleton to help conserve a brontosaurus.) Pasternak said that around that time, “I started to have a conversation with my board, and my curators, and leadership team, about how great it would be if we could create a fund to, in perpetuity, take care of the collections.” Thanks to Covid, she could act without fearing AAMD sanctions, which forbid peers from loaning works to penalized museums, rendering them pariahs.

At Christie’s fall auctions and through one private transaction, Brooklyn sold off more than 20 works, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (for $5.1 million), Claude Monet, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, raising more than half of its goal of $40 million; additional sales are planned. After being invested, according to the museum’s calculations, that final figure would provide the roughly $2 million it needs annually for collection care.

“Some institutions don’t have budget problems,” Pasternak said. “They have giant endowments. That’s not the case for the Brooklyn Museum. It’s never been the case for the Brooklyn Museum.” U.S. museums received about 22 percent of their revenue from endowments in 2017, on average, according to the AAMD; during the 2017–18 fiscal year, the Brooklyn Museum took in only about 11.5 percent from that source. Historically in New York, people have not been as philanthropic toward non-Manhattan institutions, Pasternak said.

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Lucretia (ca. 16th century)
Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Lucretia (ca. 16th century), was sold at Christie’s for $5.1 million by the Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

Stocks recovered soon after the AAMD’s decision, though, and the wealthy seemed to be thriving. Critics like Knight and Tyler Green were asking, Why can’t the trustees step up now? Her board has been generous, Pasternak said. “We’re public institutions. Why is it that a handful of people are expected to carry the burden of a public institution that they didn’t create?” She did not mince words about another challenge: “We don’t have donors who want to endow conservation positions.”

About four hours Upstate, in Syracuse, New York, the Everson Museum’s chair, an art adviser named Jessica Arb Danial, echoed that sentiment. “I just don’t know that many rich people that want to support the arts right now,” she said, when pressed about the responsibilities of trustees.

“We don’t have a huge collecting base here, nor do we have billionaire trustees on our board,” Everson director Elizabeth Dunbar said. When Dunbar joined the museum in 2014, she began deaccessioning work deemed superfluous, like that monkey head, to add art by women and artists of color. But her resources were limited—the Everson’s acquisitions endowment provided only about $30,000 annually—and she wanted to do more while guaranteeing conservation work.

When the AAMD put a moratorium on its sanctions in April, Danial said, “We thought, well, wow, this is actually something we never thought would happen. Maybe we can look into this.”

Their focus turned to Jackson Pollock’s Red Composition (1946), the second drip painting he ever made. Danial had heard that, during a period of financial turmoil, a trustee had once “kind of flippantly said, ‘You know, you should sell that Jackson Pollock.’ ” A recent capital campaign had lined up $17 million, but much of it would not reach the museum until patrons died. Here was a work that could make a comparable difference. The board voted to sell. In September, the Everson sent the small Pollock to Christie’s. It was a tough decision, Danial said, but she saw it as “a pawn in a game of moving our business forward.”

The backlash was swift. In his Wall Street Journal column, Terry Teachout lamented that the painting—“the most important in the Everson” and the Everson’s “sole destination piece”—might “never again be seen by the public.”

“People make pilgrimages from around the world to see two things at the Everson,” Dunbar said, “Adelaide Robineau’s Scarab Vase and our building”—I. M. Pei’s first art museum. “No one comes to see the Pollock.” If it was so important, she asked, why had it never been requested for a major Pollock retrospective?

Jackson Pollock’s Red Composition (1946).
Jackson Pollock’s Red Composition (1946), which the Everson Museum sold for a hammer price of $12 million in October. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

The work hammered for its low estimate, $12 million. “I’m certainly getting lots of emails from galleries and artists who think I have $12 million to deal out right now to buy anything and everything,” Dunbar said. “But you know, it’s going into an endowment.” It will provide about $500,000 a year, to be divided as museum leadership sees fit between acquisitions and direct care—a potentially solid sum for art-buying, but not a jaw-dropping one, given the cost of some emerging art.

Time-tested blue-chip art has shot up in price too, which is making these decisions appealing, however fractious. When the Pollock was donated to the Everson in 1991, it was appraised at just $800,000—about $1.53 million in today’s dollars. “It does happen to be the most valuable piece in the collection,” Dunbar said, “so in one fell swoop, we can make sweeping change.” Given Pollock’s mythical status, it “signifies to communities of color and to women artists that the myth of the white male genius is under scrutiny.”

Amid the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, there’s “a perfect storm of self-analysis, self-examination at museums, and all of a sudden, you wonder, How does this painting fit into all that?” said the lawyer Mark S. Gold, who advised the Everson on its deaccessioning. (He emphasized he was describing the general atmosphere, rather than specific cases he has worked on.)

Gold is a divisive figure in the field, having helped steer one of the most controversial sell-offs of late, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In 2018, after court fights, the Berkshire Museum there sold 22 of its most valuable artworks, including a Norman Rockwell donated by the artist, for more than $50 million, to fund renovations and build an endowment. Critics charged trustees with gross mismanagement, and the AAMD imposed sanctions—to no avail.

The Berkshire board argued that it faced a daunting balance sheet. Given current economic turmoil, others may reach a similar conclusion. “I definitely think there’s going to be an uptick on the need to sell, unfortunately,” said Allison Whiting, Christie’s director of museum services. She added, “It is not the kind of selling that we like to see museums do. It’s sad and it’s scary.”

And relying on the market can be risky. When the Delaware Art Museum (DAM) sold art in 2014 to retire debt from a 2005 expansion project, a William Holman Hunt with a low estimate of $8.4 million hammered at Christie’s for a paltry $4.25 million. The museum was able to pay its creditors by selling an Andrew Wyeth, an Alexander Calder, and a Winslow Homer. It avoided depleting its endowment, but it was a disappointment.

The AAMD imposed sanctions on the DAM, and the American Alliance of Museums withdrew its accreditation. “It was a dark, painful time,” said Molly Giordano, DAM interim executive director. “But it kept us alive, it kept us functioning.”

Giordano argued that the museum became more focused on serving its local community during the national uproar, and that the larger museum world needs to grapple with the strain some small museums are under. “I’m not advocating for deaccessioning for funding general operating,” she said. “But there’s an openness and dialogue we need to all have about business models that work.” When selling a few artworks might prevent job cuts, or ensure a museum’s existence, it can be tempting to flout the rules.

As Gold put it, referring to the AAMD’s code of ethics, “What’s unethical about using the proceeds from one painting to pay people fairly, or to address social injustice?”

Protesters take issue with the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell 21 of its most valuable artworks, including a Norman Rockwell donated by the artist himself.
Protesters take issue with the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell 21 of its most valuable artworks, including a Norman Rockwell donated by the artist himself. Photo: Gillian Jones/The Berkshire Eagle via Associated Press.

In a museum industry where conformity usually reigns, competing ideas about collection management are suddenly playing out in public.

Even as Pasternak saw through her own vigorous deaccessioning plan to support collection care, she emphasized her red lines. She would not sell work by living artists, and she said, “the big issue is that you just don’t sell the crown jewels.”

Some have accused Bedford of doing just that by trying to part with the Clyfford Still, which was donated by the artist, a local who was notoriously tight-fisted with his work; the Marden, by an artist who remains active and revered at age 82; and a Warhol that is important to his late work. (Intriguingly, funds from a Mark Rothko painting deaccessioned in the 1980s had gone toward the Warhol.)

Bedford’s plan has pushed the envelope. While the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art sold a Rothko for $50.1 million to diversify its collection in 2019 (squarely within AAMD rules), most of Baltimore’s proceeds would go toward direct care, freeing up money for those salary increases and inclusion efforts. Its success or failure will likely have a seismic effect on the field. Laurence Eisenstein, a former BMA trustee leading opposition to the sales, said, if they go through, “I think there is some risk that these kinds of deaccessions will start running rampant.”

Eisenstein, a lawyer, supported Bedford in his earlier round of sales in pursuit of collection diversity. “That seemed like a rational way to accomplish that goal,” he said. But the museum has been well funded, he argued, its budgets have been increasing, and these new disposals cut too deeply. He believes collectors will ask, “Should I donate work to the museum, given what seems to be a somewhat cavalier attitude toward deaccessioning?”

The ensuing uproar has been rancorous—and bizarre. After two former BMA chairs, Charles Newhall III and Stiles Colwill, said they had canceled a total of $50 million in pledges to protest Bedford’s leadership (the latter, apparently a full year ago), the BMA’s current board chair, Clair Zamoiski Segal, told the Washington Post that there was actually no record of their promises. Newhall shot back that the bequests had been noted in board minutes, telling the paper, “That’s what they are doing about everything. They are denying everything. They lie.”

This much, at least, is clear: huge amounts of money, and core principles, are at stake in many of these battles. “Although the de-accessioning ‘virus’ is deeply depressing, it doesn’t altogether surprise me,” art scholar David Anfam said in an email. Anfam, who opposes the Baltimore sales, believes that museums are in a state of crisis about their roles. “To put it crudely,” he said, “are they treasure houses for the elite or community centers? Doubtless, the answer lies between the two extremes. The dilemma is, where?”

The meanings of words like trust, democracy, and access are being contested. Teachout slammed the Everson sale on the grounds that an art museum is “a public trust. In return for its special tax status and similar privileges, it is expected to treat its holdings with that fact firmly in mind.”

Exterior of The New Orleans Museum of Art.
The New Orleans Museum of Art has been the subject of a campaign by Dismantle NOMA to address its systemic racism. ©rmbarricarte -

But who is included in that trust when museum audiences, executives, and boards are disproportionately white and upper class? In an interview, fari nzinga, an art historian who has conducted research on the AAMD’s conception of the mission of museums (she spells her name in lowercase), proposed “broadening the definition of public trust beyond simply object stewardship. By clinging to this narrow definition of the purpose of the museum, what it’s supposed to be, and who it’s supposed to be for, it’s damaging to the museum sector, and they’re hemorrhaging talent.” A former New Orleans Museum of Art staffer, she is a member of Dismantle NOMA, which has called on the museum to address systemic racism, and a visiting professor at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. 

While supporting sales aimed at improving collection diversity, nzinga said, “I would even have skepticism about whose art is going to replace the deaccessioned works. If it is going to be the same high-profile handful of black and people-of-color artists that get all the museum shows, are they even really helping anybody out?”

For years, Michael O’Hare, the Berkeley professor, has also called for museums to alter their approach. “Museums are a public good,” he said in an interview. “We give them special financial privileges and tax-free buildings and whatnot. And their job is to maximize engagement with art and optimize engagement with art.” His prescription: reverse FASB’s position and make the AAMD’s changes permanent. Force museums to value their art on their balance sheets, then ask them tough questions about what they show, what sits in storage, and what they could sell—perhaps with a preference for other museums—to hire more employees, pay them better, and promote better engagement with art.

Such a position is anathema to those in the museum field, not least because they see their role as more than just facilitating art appreciation. They study and ferry it through time as tastes and values change. “One generation’s idea of a ‘masterpiece’ may become another’s redundant object, and vice-versa,” said Anfam, who is senior consulting director at Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum. The AAMD’s Benjamin said museums represent “an incredibly democratic opportunity for all of us—for free, or for a relatively nominal fee—to experience works of art that, in a different time, or a different place, we might never have been able to see.”

Italienne debout tenant une cruche by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Italienne debout tenant une cruche by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875) was one of 20 pieces that the Brooklyn Museum sold through Christie’s. Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd. 2020.

O’Hare is not some wild-eyed libertarian. He’s spent his career addressing topics like biofuels, NIMBYism, and facility siting, and he published his extreme museum-management ideas in the progressive journal Democracy. The artist Hans Hofmann, he pointed out, donated dozens of his paintings to the Berkeley Art Museum, and they rarely see the light of day. “This is really about opportunity cost,” he said. “What value are we losing by denying all of the minor museums around the country a Hofmann? And the answer, I think, if we were really serious about it, is: kind of a lot.” Most museums are not, of course, sitting on a trove of Hofmanns. But he reasons they may have other underutilized, financially valuable art that could support worthy goals.

Wouldn’t his course of action push donors and government funding away from supporting museums? “If the only way by which you can make a claim on people’s wealth and the taxpayer is by lying, then sure,” O’Hare said. “If a rich person asked me about art philanthropy, I would say, Go down the street, walk past the museum to the symphony or chamber-music-presenting organization and give them money—until things change.” Knight called O’Hare’s ideas “ridiculous” in an interview, and suggested that those pushing deaccessioning “stop thinking like Ronald Reagan. Stop thinking that trickle-down works. It’s a mindset that says the market is the answer to all our problems. And it is not. Resisting that is itself a morale-builder, a culture-builder, and a community-builder.”

Baltimore’s plan edges toward O’Hare’s proposal by making a trade between its art and its other goals. (Although O’Hare has said he wouldn’t advocate selling masterpieces.) One rallying cry against such sales is the specter of works once enjoyed by the public disappearing into the vaults of oligarchs. The reality is more complicated. There are no exact statistics on the fate of art sold by museums, but some of it does reappear. Gammon points to a sale of 32 Old Master works from the beleaguered New-York Historical Society’s Bryan Collection in 1995: Other museums have since acquired six of them, and 19 have either appeared at museums or been offered again on the market. The impulse of the rich to glorify themselves transcends time and deaccessioning. (The whereabouts of Delaware’s Homer is unknown, but the Berkshires’ best Rockwell was acquired by George Lucas’s forthcoming Los Angeles museum. The public will see it, but in a city with 100 times more people.)

However daring their plans, though, Bedford, BMA chief curator Asma Naeem, and BMA senior curator Katy Siegel have made their case in curatorial terms: the BMA has plenty of late Warhols, their Marden prints better represent him, and narratives of gestural abstraction need not require a Still. “These arguments are completely disingenuous upon closer examination,” said Gammon, the scholar–art adviser, who has opposed the sales. “I think they should just be straightforward and say, ‘We wanted to raise a huge amount of money, and we picked out several pieces that were highlighted to us as valuable.’ ” (Of course, this is a former auctioneer speaking.)

The money for more financially stable, more interesting museums needs to come from somewhere, but the more one considers the possibilities, the less any single answer looks ideal. Those who oppose any major deaccessioning have the benefit of clarity: Keep art in its place. A commitment to history and preservation is admirable. The psychic benefits of cultural pride and patrimony are real, even if they cannot be itemized on financial documents. But so, too, are the opportunity costs of refusing a path of “progressive deaccessioning,” a phrase coined by curator Glenn Adamson to describe sales that chip away at the white supremacy in collections. And merely demanding the rich give more does not feel like a wholly satisfying response to calls for reimagining museums around social and economic justice.

Jack Whitten’s 9.11.01 (2006)
Jack Whitten’s 9.11.01 (2006) was acquired by the BMA using funds raised by selling work in 2018 by Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, and others. Photo: John Berens/©Jack Whitten Estate/Courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth.

In any case, Baltimore brought its plan to a halt after an institutional show of force. On the eve of the auction in late October, the AAMD released a statement abruptly pulling back its support, though without explicitly mentioning Baltimore. While he recognized museums had big plans, Benjamin wrote in the statement, “however serious those long-term needs or meritorious those goals, the current position of AAMD is that the funds for those must not come from the sale of deaccessioned art.” The suspension of the penalties, Benjamin continued, was not meant as a green light to begin selling. Asked about the apparent shift, he pointed me to his letter. “We’re not really wanting to single out any particular circumstance,” he said. (The AAMD maintains that the suspension will conclude in April of 2022.)

In an unprecedented condemnation, 15 former AAMD presidents signed a letter the next day that backed the AAMD’s position, urging the BMA “to reconsider.” (Among the signees was Arnold Lehman, who had led both the Brooklyn and Baltimore museums.) Baltimore withdrew the lots from the sale—the public became aware just hours before the Still and the Warhol were to be auctioned—but it remained undaunted. “Our vision and our goals have not changed,” it said in a statement. “It will take us longer to achieve them, but we will do so through all the means at our disposal.” (Bedford and Segal, the board chair, declined to be interviewed after their retreat.)

Speaking before the cancellation, Bedford was adamant about acting quickly. Fundraising campaigns can take years to raise serious money. He wasn’t willing to wait that long to improve equity, and his board had been supportive in its funding already. “In order to achieve the kind of transformation that I think we as a museum have promised the city of Baltimore in the period of time that we have allocated for that transformation, it would have been impossible without an exceptional event,” he said.

He still has strong supporters. The Reverend Kobi Little, who leads the Baltimore NAACP, decried the efforts of “disgruntled board members to hinder the BMA’s evolution” in a letter to the Baltimore Sun that invoked the late Congressman John Lewis’s notion of “good trouble.”

However the Baltimore case settles, it has already lent new candor to discussions about deaccessioning—and about how museums prioritize their interests. Noting that guards at the BMA could qualify for housing vouchers, columnist Carolina A. Miranda wrote in an L.A. Times column opposing the sales that “museums officers and trustees should be embarrassed.” Museum collections have long skewed white and male, and wages have long been low. Is selling art the best course for correcting that?

The potential benefits and losses are tremendous. Curlee Raven Holton, an artist who directs the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland, said that he supports Baltimore’s sales “with recognition of the limits in alternative fundraising opportunities, a need to confront an embarrassing past, the repositioning of the institution to reflect a more accurate picture of the American artistic canon. There are no costless decisions. The neglect of artists of color has been a painful reality, the correction of this wound will as well be matched with a new pain, one of change.”

A version of this article appears in the February/March 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “The Battle of  Baltimore.”