Baltimore Museum of Art Deaccessioning Works to Diversify Collection

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The Baltimore Museum of Art is preparing to sell seven works from its collection by prominent twentieth-century artists, including Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, to create an acquisitions fund for works by women and African-American artists, artnet news reports.

The sales, which could raise more than $12 million, would be "absolutely transformative" for a collection that historically has underrepresented non-white artists, BMA director Christopher Bedford told artnet. While institutions occasionally sell art to fund acquisitions, they typically do it to raise funds for major works; in this case, BMA will use the funds to correct the historical record. "To state it explicitly and act on it with discipline — there is no question that is an unusual and radical act to take," said Bedford.

A year ago, Bedford asked Kristen Hileman, the museum’s longtime curator of contemporary art, to take a "hard look" at the collection and identify any promising candidates for deaccessioning. After she identified the seven works, the plan was presented to the board’s executive committee, every member of the curatorial staff, and the museum’s contemporary acquisitions committee, which is made up of local constituents and artists. The BMA board voted unanimously in February to approve the sale of the seven works.

BMA also decided to divide the proceeds from the sale into two buckets. The money generated by five of the works will be put into a dedicated endowment for contemporary art, of which the museum can spend around 5 percent each year. Meanwhile, proceeds from the two Warhol works (one of which is expected to sell for between $2 million and $3 million at auction and one that will be sold via private sale) will be put into a fund that is designed to be spent sooner — over the next three to five years. The latter move required the museum to seek the permission of the original donors of the Warhols: the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and collector Richard Pearlstone, whose wife, Amy Elias, is on the BMA board.

Deaccessioning — even when the proceeds are used to acquire more art — can spark criticism from those who believe museums should never mortgage their history to chase what might turn out to be a passing fashion. Those who oppose deaccessioning in this case also might wonder why the museum didn’t approach major donors and ask them to kick in more money to fund new acquisitions. But Elias is skeptical there was a large enough pool of funds that could be tapped for that purpose and further argues that museums should be willing to re-evaluate their holdings on a periodic basis. "We like those pieces," she said of the Warhols, which BMA acquired in 1994, "but if there is a better way to use them to create other opportunities, we are all for it….It’s 2018. Visions change. Just because you looked at things one way years ago doesn’t mean you look at them the same way now."

Julia Halperin. “‘It Is an Unusual and Radical Act’: Why the Baltimore Museum Is Selling Blue-Chip Art to Buy Work by Underrepresented Artists.” Artnet news 04/30/2018.
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