Just hours before a planned auction, the Baltimore Museum of Art decided Wednesday to halt the sale of three paintings by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still and Brice Marden to generate funds for its diversity and equity programs.
Still’s “1957-G” and Marden’s “3” were set to be auctioned at Sotheby’s on Wednesday evening. Along with the private sale of Warhol’s “The Last Supper,” the paintings were estimated to bring $65 million for the acquisition of works by women and artists of color and the creation of an endowment to support equity and diversity programs, such as salary increases and free admission.
The museum said in a statement that it was still committed to its “Endowment for the Future” effort.
“We want to affirm our goals as we envisioned them in relation to the Endowment for the Future,” the statement said. “We believe unequivocally that museums exist to serve their communities through experiences with art and artists. We firmly believe that museums and their collections have been built on structures that we must work, through bold and tangible action, to reckon with, modify, and reimagine as structures that will meet the demands of the future …
“The Endowment for the Future was developed to take action — right now, in this moment. Our vision and our goals have not changed. It will take us longer to achieve them, but we will do so through all means at our disposal. That is our mission and we stand behind it.”
The museum’s board of trustees approved the action Wednesday after emergency meetings requested by six trustees who worried that the “long-standing community of the BMA support is being irreparably harmed” by mounting opposition to the plan.
Since the sales were announced Oct. 2, the BMA has faced growing criticism and community activism, including the call for a state investigation, the resignation of high-profile trustees and the rescinding of $50 million in planned gifts.
The museum stood by its decision until hours before the Sotheby’s auction was to begin. The move came after a statement from the Association of Art Museum Directors, a national oversight organization, that clarified the intent of an April move that loosened deaccessioning rules. That temporary measure was “intended to assist museums facing a financial crisis due to the impacts of the pandemic, between April 2020 and April 2022,” the AAMD said Tuesday. The statement did not mention the BMA.
“The resolutions were not put in place to incentivize deaccessioning, nor to permit museums to achieve other, non-collection-specific, goals,” wrote Brent Benjamin, president of the AAMD board of trustees. “I recognize that many of our institutions have long-term needs — or ambitious goals — that could be supported, in part, by taking advantage of these resolutions to sell art. But 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.”
Fifteen past presidents of the AAMD sent a letter Wednesday to the BMA board in support of Benjamin’s statement, and urged the museum to reconsider the sale.
BMA Director Christopher Bedford has repeatedly stated that his museum is not in financial difficulty but faces a moral imperative to address systemic racism and injustice. The museum planned to spend $10 million to acquire art by women and artists of color and $1 million for immediate salary increases and other equity measures. The remaining $54 million would go into an endowment, and the $2 million to $2.5 million in annual interest would support programs to improve equity, diversity and inclusion.