Museums, COVID, Diversity, Deaccessioning
October 21, 2020 11:59 AM   Subscribe

What we can learn from the Baltimore Museum of Art's recent deaccessioning announcement.

In 1989, the Baltimore Museum of Art deaccessioned Mark Rothko’s “Olive over Red” painting for $950,000 in order to purchase Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper,” a bright yellow behemoth featuring two copies of Da Vinci’s historic fresco printed side by side. The late Warhol masterpiece, 35 feet long, hung on prominent display in the BMA’s contemporary wing for the better part of two decades.

Although Warhol may now seem to be another established white male artist ubiquitous in museums across the country, it is important to recall where American culture and politics stood when the BMA purchased this painting by an openly queer artist. In 1989, the United States government was blatantly hostile to LGBTQI citizens, AIDS was ravaging gay communities, and American soldiers were put in prison for the crime of homosexuality. The visibility of this one painting, and its subsequent display at the center of the museum’s Contemporary Wing for two decades, was an effort to balance previous institutional biases toward the heterosexual male gaze, embodied in Matisse’s famous female nudes and Gauguin’s “Woman with a Mango.”

Baltimore Museum of Art to sell 3 paintings, including Warhol’s ‘The Last Supper,’ to fund diversity initiatives (Baltimore Sun link)

Baltimore Museum to Sell 3 Blue-Chip Paintings to Advance Equity(NYT link)

State asked to halt sale of three Baltimore Museum of Art paintings (WaPo link)
Twitter thread from Christopher Knight, a Pulitzer-winning art critic

‘Uniquely egregious’: The disturbing precedent of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s deaccessioning plan
and a response
Baltimore Museum of Art curators respond to deaccessioning criticism (both links in the Art Newspaper, three free articles a month)
posted by PussKillian (25 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I had never heard the term deaccession before. Interesting word, interesting piece.
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:14 PM on October 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

And last month's discussion of the subject, prompted by a sale by the Brooklyn Museum.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:36 PM on October 21, 2020 [5 favorites]

Thanks for this thoughtful post. Having read a couple of the links but having no direct connection to the art world, I have a hard time being upset about the Warhol sale. It feels like an inevitability caused by the capitalization of fine art. A symptom more than a cause. I certainly understand there's a potential slippery slope here, but on the face, the sale of a Warhol to fund more equitable employment practices seems like a good thing to me. Multi million dollar private art collections disgust me. But there's no allegation of graft. In capitalism we're all compromised. Sell the Warhol to pay your lower paid staff better and purchase works by people of color? I feel like I'd do that.
posted by latkes at 12:38 PM on October 21, 2020 [9 favorites]

I have never understood "Museums must never let go of a work of art once acquired."
posted by PhineasGage at 12:45 PM on October 21, 2020 [6 favorites]

Responding to the former trustees’ letter, the BMA expressed confidence that it has not broken any rules and explained repeatedly that its goal is to create an “internally equitable structure and an externally equitable and mutual relationship with its diverse publics,” which is presumably the goal of all museums, and is not in conflict with those issuing the protest. [emphasis added]

This author clearly knows more about deaccessioning rules than I ever will, but if part of their argument against this sale is a claim that all museums are already meeting, or even striving toward, a goal of equitable access to the public, and therefore no special measures are needed, then I have a very hard time taking any of their other arguments at face value.
posted by solotoro at 12:49 PM on October 21, 2020 [7 favorites]

PhineasGage, museums should be able to deaccession, and most do, although it can be a fraught experience. If a museum has 15 Robert Henri paintings, 5 of which are stunners, 5 of which are pretty good, and 5 of which are fine but not going to be exhibited any time soon because there are ten paintings ahead of them in line (so to speak), it would be an uncontroversial move.
posted by PussKillian at 1:33 PM on October 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have never understood "Museums must never let go of a work of art once acquired."

It does piss off the people who donated them. (See: the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University controversy.)
posted by Melismata at 1:35 PM on October 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

I don't have a problem with a museum deaccessioning a piece. I do have a problem if it then moves into a private collection so that it is not publicly displayed somewhere in the world. What if someone hates Warhol's work so much that they want to pay $40 million just to burn it? Is that okay? There needs to be some control over what happens to the piece after it is deaccessioned.
posted by Xoc at 1:53 PM on October 21, 2020 [5 favorites]

I have never understood "Museums must never let go of a work of art once acquired."

It’s a counterforce against presentism. When museums act as though what’s currently admired/informative is all that’s ever going to be admired, they’re always playing catch-up with galleries and funneling more money there. Plus rebuying stuff they could have kept.

I vaguely feel like this was a principle adopted in the 1910s-1930s ish as museums became public and professional institutions in the US? Any museum historians here?
posted by clew at 2:02 PM on October 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

What if someone hates Warhol's work so much that they want to pay $40 million just to burn it? Is that okay?

Artists have done stunts like this – see The Erased Rauschenberg ("Bentel purchased a Rauschenberg print for $10,000 and "destroyed" it by covering it with advertisements") and Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn ("Ai actually destroyed two urns to create the artwork: his photographer failed to catch the smashing of the first urn").
posted by oulipian at 2:13 PM on October 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

I really don't have a problem with deaccessioning to buy other artwork, that's curating your collection, though obviously people can still argue that the piece being sold was more vital. What I tend to side-eye is deaccessioning to build a shiny new building/gallery, or for maintenance costs. The former is usually about empire-building by the leadership, and the latter is eating seed corn. It may be necessary in desperate circumstances, but to be avoided if at all possible.
posted by tavella at 2:24 PM on October 21, 2020 [5 favorites]

Given that art has become a specialized commodity and the market has ups and downs, one can see a given institution in the same way that one would see a hedge fund or mutual fund. Buy low, sell high. In fifty years will you be able to give a Warhol away? Maybe. Maybe not. Ironically, a lot of the value will be determined by the rich private collectors mentioned above. Their interest is in art as a store of wealth.

Viewed from that perspective, the value of a museum collection comes down to how much foot traffic or donor dollars it generates. Factor in local demographics, regional connection of the artists in question, value of buying from living over the dead, what else is worth visiting in the joint's home town - lot of variables to work with here.

Artists have done stunts like this

You're nicer than I am. I've a few other names for people like that.
posted by BWA at 2:31 PM on October 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn

I've seen that. Here's what I saw. It was not a stunt, and it was worth the terrible price of its creation. It's left a lasting impression on me.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:47 PM on October 21, 2020 [12 favorites]

The guy (linked above by oulipian, in Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn)
painting over and smashing ancient vases is a dick, IMHO.
posted by olykate at 3:04 PM on October 21, 2020

Weird that this is turning into an Ai Weiwei bashing thread, but good to know that people aren't amused by one of the foremost Chinese artists - and critics of the Chinese government - performing a piece of art that interacts with that history.

olykate, you do realize that they're two different people, correct?

Anyway, bringing up artists who were engaging with other pieces of art in a destructive manner seems different from someone buying Warhol's work and destroying out of, say, homophobia.
posted by sagc at 3:08 PM on October 21, 2020 [7 favorites]

This post really requires breaking hallowed MeFi tradition and reading the articles before posting, or at least the first one. It's not as simple as "stodgy old white people clutch their pearls at a museum daring to sell off paintings". Apparently the sale violates the deaccessioning rules set by the American Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD), are not even financially necessary for the museum right now, are not necessary to achieve the goal of a more diverse art collection or at least it hasn't been shown that this goal can't otherwise be achieved through traditional fundraising methods, have been conducted with a lack of public accountability and transparency, and there are allegations of fiduciary improprieties.

I have no idea how many and to what extent these points are accurate, but it seems like there are a lot of questions surrounding this worth thoroughly answering before going ahead with a sale that will see three renowned works disappear into the void of private collections forever.
posted by star gentle uterus at 3:36 PM on October 21, 2020 [19 favorites]

Man, art is complicated.
posted by gwint at 3:38 PM on October 21, 2020

A friend of mine accessions texts for a state historical society and its library, and she was very matter-of-fact when she explained this to me about ten years ago. (This must be the curator's equivalent of The Birds And The Bees talk!)

I was shocked at first, but when I considered the reasoning it made very good sense.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:22 PM on October 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have to think that there's a problem with donors providing good works to a museum that they then work to calcify the museum from ever changing. A museum composed entirely of donated works they're prohibited from selling or exchanging for others, is going to have problems staying alive in the long run.
posted by rhizome at 7:41 PM on October 21, 2020

But that’s not how it mostly works, rhizome - first, a museum doesn’t promise to have stuff on display all the time (unless the donor gives an endowment to support it, and maybe a building). Second, they can keep stuff in storage or send it on extended loans elsewhere, usually. And third, needing cash to maintain the rest of the collection is one of the reasons the AAMD does recognize for selling from the collection - but even then there are best practices that this proposed sale may be breaking.

About halfway between Artemisia Gentellischi’s life and now professional art critics were boasting about how much they wanted to see her disgusting paintings burnt. We’d have lost a lot had the museum holding them decided not to keep them.
posted by clew at 9:18 PM on October 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Couldn't they have sold some Jeff Koons? If museums around the world start selling off their Koons I'm cool with it.
posted by Chickenring at 9:50 PM on October 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

In other art news: Banksy's 'Show me the Monet' painting sells for nearly $10 million
posted by gwint at 10:00 AM on October 22, 2020

Clew is referring to this lady, who seems interesting despite my profound disagreement with her taste:
The nineteenth-century art historian Anna Brownell Jameson wrote of wishing for “the privilege of burning it to ashes.”) . The quote is from this article on Gentileschi

Being able to browse a museum’s entire collection really can give you an interesting timeline of artistic movements, fads, stuff that was crazily popular in its own time and is now just kind of meh...and then sometimes you can recontextualize it and it all comes alive again.
posted by PussKillian at 8:03 PM on October 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

ARTNews offers a deeper dive on the topic. "The Most Controversial U.S. Museum Deaccessions: Why Do Institutions Sell Art?"
Deaccessioning is hardly new in the art world, however, and neither are the debates surrounding it. Below, a look back at some of the most notable deaccessioning plans from the past five decades.
posted by PhineasGage at 8:37 AM on October 28, 2020

After a very pointed “we didn’t say it but this is about you” statement from the AAMD, the BMA has paused the sale.
posted by PussKillian at 5:31 PM on October 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

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