Former trustees at the Baltimore Museum of Art have called for an investigation into the Maryland institution’s plans to deaccession $65 million in art from its holdings at Sotheby’s this fall. Their claims were voiced in a letter sent to Maryland’s secretary of state John C. Wobensmith and its attorney general Brian E. Frosh on October 14.
Eleven of the 23 signatories of the letter have held positions on the BMA’s board or its acquisition committees. They claim that an inquiry must be launched because the deaccessioning of work by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still, and Brice Marden presents potential conflicts of interest in the sales agreement and possible “procedural irregularities.”
Of particular concern in the letter is the alleged sales price for the Warhol painting, The Last Supper (1986), which the letter’s signatories claim was sold privately and with a guarantee of $40 million—a “bargain-basement price,” they allege. “The BMA did not sufficiently exercise its fiduciary duty in valuation of the work and seeking competition to maximize the sale proceeds,” the letter reads. (“Sotheby’s stands in full support of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s thorough deaccession process and their pioneering plans for the future of the institution,” a spokesperson for the auction house said.)
Additionally, the letter claims that using the funds to advance staff salaries goes against guidelines set down by the Association of Art Museum Directors, a prominent industry group, and that the museum has not properly acknowledged the “significance” of the works headed to sale, given that Warhol was a member of the LGBTQ+ community and that Still was a key Maryland artist.
In an extended statement, the Baltimore Museum of Art repeatedly called the allegations of conflicts of interest and “irregularities” unfounded. “We are confident that there are no legal issues relating to the BMA’s deaccession of works by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still, and Andy Warhol, or to the intended use of the proceeds of the sale,” the museum said. “We have reached out to Secretary of State John C. Wobensmith and Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh to provide them with information regarding our actions, and we look forward to working with them to answer any questions that they may have, and to sharing any necessary documents or additional details.”
The museum previously claimed that the deaccessioning plan was in accordance with the AAMD’s newly eased guidelines, which were announced in April as a result of the economic toll of museums because of the pandemic. The guidelines allow directors of U.S. art institutions to sell works from their holdings without sanctions being taken against them, if the funds are used to support direct care of the collection.
The BMA announced plans to part ways with the three works earlier this month, saying that the funds from their sale would be used to diversify its holdings and advance staff salary increases, in part as an effort to offer what the museum called “internal equity” among workers. It is not the first time the BMA has controversially sold works to acquire works to buy art by nonwhite artists and women—the museum also previously did that, on a smaller scale, in 2018—but the decision to do so has this time been met with fiercer criticism.
“You have to have done the work in advance and be willing to make the leap when the opportunity presents itself,” Christopher Bedford, the museum’s director, said of the initial decision to deaccession works in 2018 in a recent ARTnews profile. The museum’s deaccessioning plans have proven influential, and institutions such as the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, and the Palm Springs Museum of Art in California have undertaken similar measures in the name of diversity this year.
Earlier this week, Asma Naeem and Katy Seigel, two BMA curators, wrote an op-ed in the Art Newspaper in which they defended the decision to deaccession works, claiming it was intended to rectify imbalances, both on an institutional level and within the collection. “The BMA believes that the mission of the museum is civic, and that its dual responsibility is to create an internally equitable structure and an equitable and mutual relationship with the public, as expressed in the collection, exhibitions, programming and overall engagement,” they wrote. “Too many critics routinely enlist a white and privileged few tied to—dependent on—the status quo, but unsurprisingly fail to consider who isn’t speaking.”
Update, 10/15/20, 5:10 p.m.: This article has been updated with statements from the BMA and Sotheby’s.