Baltimore Museum of Art pulls works from controversial sale

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Amid growing protest, the Baltimore Art Museum has withdrawn the controversial sale of three works through Sotheby’s at The Eleventh Hour. The recall came after a group of former presidents of the Association of Art Museum Directors condemned the imminent sale.

Hours before the Baltimore Art Museum was about to auction a group of multimillion-dollar works at Sotheby’s in New York, the institution pulled them off the market. The decision not to promote the export of Clifford Still and Bryce Marden’s paintings and Andy Warhol’s canvas through private sale followed weeks of controversy culminating in an indirect rebuke from the Art Museum Directors Association, which oversees the institutions in North America.

The museum hoped to use the bulk of the $ 65 million expected from the sale to create a so-called “fund of the future” that would provide $ 2 to $ 2.5 million annually to support diversity efforts. However, despite the sale being halted, the museum’s release is closely related to director Christopher Bedford’s that the institution seeks to rewrite the post-war canon in dramatic and often controversial steps.

The Baltimore Museum of art announcement to cancel the sale says they firmly believe that museums and their collections were built on structures that we must work on with bold and tangible actions to reckon with, reshape and rethink as structures for the future.

They believe that this drive is not about sacrificing history, but about telling a more accurate and complete narrative of art, culture, and people.

Baltimore Museum of Art pulls works from controversial sale
Clyfford Still, 1957-G (1957). City & County of Denver, Courtesy Clyfford Still Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Opponents of the sale argued that it was orchestrated with insufficient transparency, deprived the Baltimore community of important art held by the public end, and was motivated by financial gain in violation of waiver guidelines. Amid a growing chorus of disapproval, the two former BMA Baltimore chairmen announced this week that they are collecting promised $ 50 million in donations to protest the sale.

In a sign of how controversial the debate had become, Bedford said that opposition to the sale came from the “privileged elite” and the “ruling class.” However, in the end, it looks like the AAMD exit guidelines were what led to the cancellation of the sale.

Generally, the AAMD stipulates that proceeds from the sale of works of art may only be used to fund future acquisitions. However, the BMA’s exit plan was based on a temporary change to these guidelines, introduced in April, that allowed struggling museums to sell objects to support operating funds to weather the financial crisis. The revised guidelines are only valid until April 2022.

Baltimore Museum of Art pulls works from controversial sale
Brice Marden, 3 (1987–88). Courtesy of Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Brent Benjamin, AAMD Board of Trustees President, director of the St. Louis Museum of Art, offered clarifications to the new guidelines in an internal memo. It was sent out to member museums. He wrote that he is aware that many of their institutions have long-term needs or ambitious goals that can be partially supported by taking advantage of these resolutions to sell art.

But as serious or worthy of these long-term needs, the current position of the AAMD is that funds for them should not come from the sale of retired works of art.

Although the memo does not mention BMA by name, opponents of the sale seized on it as evidence that the museum’s plans were in violation of AAMD guidelines. Based on Benjamin’s explanation, a donation intended for life after April 2022, specifically to generate funds for use beyond the direct collection, could open BMA Baltimore to potential sanctions.

The Baltimore Museum of Art plans to create a long-term fund to fund the museum in the future clearly goes beyond the acceptable use of deposit funds, ”said Larry Eisenstein, a former trustee of the museum who led the effort to end the sale. While the museum claimed it still enjoyed the blessing of the AAMD, 14 former board presidents wrote a letter to Claire Zamoyski Sigal, chairman of the BMA board, saying the sale should not be promoted.

Anderson said he believes they reflect the prevailing views of current directors and former directors and directors emeritus, including Brent Benjamin. They hope museums will look for other ways to meet urgent reform needs in support of Black Lives Matter. Their collections should be viewed as critical to institutional purposes, not as a source of unlimited income.

Just a few hours later, BMA Baltimore announced that the sale of the work, which was due to start that evening, would not continue. But a somewhat defiant statement argued that museum officials do not adhere to the notion that museums exist to serve items. They believe that the items in our collection should reflect, engage and inspire many different people.

Baltimore Museum of Art pulls works from controversial sale
Andy Warhol, The Last Supper (1986). © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image courtesy the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The statement also reiterated that in private and public statements, the AAMD has confirmed that the BMA Baltimore plans are in line with the April 2020 resolutions, but it noted that subsequent conversations with AAMD leadership clearly indicated that they must suspend their plans to continue the necessary conversations.

The Still 1957-G (1957) is expected to sell for $ 12 million to $ 18 million, while the Marden’s 3 (1987-88) had a pre-sale estimate of $ 10 million to $ 15 million. According to reports, Warhol’s Last Supper (1986) probably raised about $ 40 million. Now, the museum may have to rely on other funding to implement its diversity plan.

The BMA said in a statement that their vision and goals have not changed. It will take longer to achieve them. But they will do it with all the means at their disposal.

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