The Baltimore Museum of Art has faced intense turmoil and trustee resignations, including by artists Amy Sherald and Adam Pendleton, since announcing earlier this month that it would sell three paintings by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still and Brice Marden to generate $65 million for diversity and equity programs. Now, two former museum board chairmen say they’ve rescinded planned gifts totaling $50 million.
Former board chairperson Charles Newhall III said Friday that he and another former chairperson, Stiles Colwill, made verbal pledges of $30 million and $20 million, respectively, in gifts to the “In a New Light” campaign that was tied to the museum’s 100th anniversary in 2014. They have publicly rescinded those promises because of the museum’s intention to sell the three artworks, which include Warhol’s “The Last Supper.”
Other donors Newhall has spoken to are considering canceling gifts, too, he said, while Colwill warned that the museum may lose out on gifts of art from local collectors.
However, Clair Zamoiski Segal, chairperson of the board of trustees, said in an email that the museum has no record of a $50 million pledge or any pledges totaling that amount.
“While we appreciate that Charles Newhall is expressing that he had intended on making such a pledge, this was not negotiated or recorded with the museum,” Segal wrote.
Newhall rejected Segal’s statement and characterized it as part of a pattern. “We never put anything in writing, but I ran that campaign for five years. I’m sure it’s in the minutes of the various board meetings,” he said. “That’s what they are doing about everything. They are denying everything. They lie.”
The canceled donations are the latest evidence of growing opposition to the deaccessioning that the board approved earlier this month. Museum officials plan to auction Still’s “1957-G” and Marden’s “3” on Wednesday night at Sotheby’s. A private sale of the Warhol work is said to be imminent.
The controversy led to the resignations of artists Pendleton and Sherald, whose resignation letter revealed strife on the board. Both artists said they could not devote the time required to participate fully on the board. Neither stated outright that they objected to the sale.
“I have my opinions about the recent and ongoing proceedings but do not feel as though I am in a position to weigh in, which has given me clarity about my decision to resign,” Pendleton wrote Thursday.
Sherald took aim at a claim made by Newhall in his resignation letter that it was a conflict of interest for museum director Christopher Bedford to appoint artists whose work the museum later acquired.
“I take umbrage for my nomination as an artist and subsequent selection as a trustee for being unjustifiably highlighted in Chuck Newhall’s resignation. This is a high mark of audacity to assume that I was nominated only to be used as a pawn for Christopher Bedford’s gain. I like to believe that we are all seen for our capabilities and as individuals. Any suggestion otherwise is implausible. Not only is it egregious but it is irresponsible especially given the fact that trustees are vetted and approved by committee,” she wrote Friday. “While I have my impressions about the deaccession I respect the opinions of the remaining trustees whose tenure has informed their decision making.”
Neither artist responded to messages seeking comment.
The BMA intends to spend $10 million to acquire art made by women and artists of color and $1 million for equity programs. It will place the balance — an estimated $54 million — in an endowment that will yield $2 million to $2.5 million annually for the museum’s work to improve equity, diversity and inclusion. Director Christopher Bedford said the museum had “a moral imperative” to undertake a bold plan to address systemic racism and injustice.
The controversy highlights the complexity of deaccessioning, a common practice in the museum world. The Association of Art Museum Directors in April relaxed the rules for how museums can use funds from the sale of artwork to allow them greater flexibility. The change was intended to help struggling museums navigate the financial pain of the pandemic. By its own admission, the BMA is financially sound.
BMA officials have repeatedly noted the Warhol was purchased with funds from a deaccessioned Mark Rothko painting, and, just two years ago, it sold seven paintings, including works by Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland, for $16.2 million and used the proceeds to diversify its collection.
But this latest deaccessioning plan has raised alarm within the museum’s extended community, leading to the resignation of at least four trustees and a letter to state officials seeking to halt the sale and open an investigation. The letter was signed by 150 supporters, including former director Arnold Lehman. Five former board chairs have criticized the plan.
In a letter dated Oct. 15, Newhall resigned as honorary trustee and asked that his name be removed from the public display of support.
“I feel that by leaving my name associated with the museum, I’m tactically supporting the new direction,” he wrote. “I do not agree with Chris Bedford’s vision of rewriting the cannon of art history by rectifying the wrongs of the past. I certainly do not believe that one sells masterpieces to fund diversity.”
Colwill said Bedford and the board were doing irreparable damage to the museum by continuing with the sale. Calling it “an act of a rogue director,” he said the deaccession plan has longtime supporters up in arms.
State officials would not confirm or deny any action they are taking, and museum officials said they have contacted them to offer help. Segal issued a public letter on Thursday saying that criticism of the museum’s decision and its due diligence are without merit.
“The change brought about by the BMA’s Endowment for the Future will impact the shape of our collection, our ability to invite, accommodate, and connect with a greater swath of our community, and to honor the people who work at the BMA by paying them a fair and living wage. These are not abstract goals; these are priorities with lasting impact and with which museums need to be engaged. This is an effort to live our mission, and the change is necessary and long, long overdue,” Segal wrote, adding that she is confident the plan is legal and that the auction will go ahead as planned.
Although the auction is days away, critics continue to pressure museum and state officials. Legal avenues are being explored.
“We’re continuing to consider all options,” said former trustee Laurence J. Eisenstein. “We’re still pressing the board that they should reconsider their decision and we’re continuing to press and present evidence to the attorney general’s office in the hope that they will intervene.”
Critics have said they support the museum’s diversity and equity plans but question the choice of major works and the way the museum is selling them.
“I support the idea of what Christopher Bedford is trying to do. I don’t support the way he’s doing it,” said Sherry Christhilf, a former member of the accessions committee and longtime supporter of the museum. “It’s a sad way, and an easy way. It’s easy to take the good stuff and sell it to make money.”
Segal declined to be interviewed for this story, but in an email to The Washington Post, she wrote that raising money for operations is difficult.
“The majority of donors would rather give to more high-profile projects or initiatives and the board itself is not an endless fount,” she wrote. “If fundraising for salaries was easy, more museums would be paying better wages.”