Responding to outcry, Baltimore Museum of Art board chair defends deaccessioning decision

“The greatness of the BMA’s collection does not live within three individual paintings,” she says as the sale of a Warhol, Still and Marden approaches

Brice Marden, 3 (1987-88), which is to be auctioned at Sotheby's Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art

Brice Marden, 3 (1987-88), which is to be auctioned at Sotheby's Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art

Stung by accusations of dereliction of duty, the board chair of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) today defended the institution’s decision to sell off three blue-chip works for an estimated $65m, declaring, “The greatness of the BMA’s collection does not live within three individual paintings.”

“I have grown increasingly troubled by the suggestion that the BMA’s leadership has been derelict in its duty as stewards of the museum and its responsibility to the community,” writes the chair of the board of trustees, Clair Zamoiski Segal, in an open letter released to the news media. “These accusations have no merit, and greatly diminish and misconstrue the long-standing, and in many instances, multi-generational, commitment of the members of the BMA’s board of trustees to the city of Baltimore and to the museum that serves this community.”

The museum’s decision to deaccession the three works, by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still and Brice Marden, has stirred an outcry. A coalition of more than 180 supporters of the museum have signed a letter asking the Maryland attorney general and secretary of state to block the imminent sell-offs, saying that the sales agreement apparently undervalues the Warhol and that all three paintings are highly important to the collection. The Warhol (which appears to be valued at around $40m) is being sold privately through Sotheby’s, and the Still (formally estimated at $12m-$18m) and the Marden ($10m-$15m) are to be auctioned by the house on 28 October.

The BMA has said that the proceeds of the sales will be used to establish an “endowment for the future” that will secure and increase staff salaries, improve community access and continue to diversify its collection. The museum is acting under rules relaxed by the Association of Art Museum Directors, which previously limited museums to using proceeds from art sales solely to buy more works.

“There is nothing short-sighted nor nefarious about deaccessioning,” Segal says in her letter, which outlines her contributions to the museum over years as a member, donor and volunteer as well as board chair. “It is a regular practice, undertaken by every art museum in the United States. Assertions otherwise are simply a means of inflaming controversy and serve only to maintain the status quo of museums as repositories of riches serving the elite alone.”

Segal grounds the museum’s decision in an embrace of diversity and inclusion: “The greatness of the BMA’s collection does not live within three individual paintings. It lives within the narratives that the BMA can share, the voices it reflects within its walls, and the individuals that it can yet bring into the conversation.

“To suggest that the absence of these three works breaks the public trust omits the reality of the many individuals whose trust we have not yet won,” Segal continues. “We have not yet won that trust because we, along with many other museums, have been operating within a system that has excluded too many for far too long.”

Laurence J. Eisenstein, an attorney and former BMA trustee who composed the letter to Maryland state officials and canvassed for the signatures, countered today, “You don’t sell off the crown jewels of the museum to finance what we all agree are good and important goals. You do a fund-raising campaign.”

“They chose highly valued items as opposed to doing a highly researched review of the 90,000 works in the collection,” says Eisenstein, who wrote a separate letter to the museum this week asking it to reverse its decision to sell the paintings. “The process by which this decision has been done is extraordinarily troubled.”

He also contends that the museum could raise as much as $100m, as opposed to $65m, for the three paintings if it made approaches to auction houses in addition to Sotheby’s.

In an interview this week for The Week in Art, The Art Newspaper’s podcast, Christopher Bedford, the director of the BMA, took aim at the protest letter submitted to the attorney general and secretary of state. “We are being held to account by a petition signed exclusively–almost exclusively–by a very privileged elite who are calling not for change but rather the maintenance of a status quo from yesteryear,” he says.

“We’re actually being told by the ruling class that what we’re doing is not acceptable when what we are trying to do is advance a new and more just future for the museum,” Bedford adds.

Segal maintains that the sales and the creation of the “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 honour the people who work at the BMA by paying them a fair and living wage”.

She adds, “I am proud of our decision and I look forward to continuing to serve our community and making it proud.”