Baltimore Museum of Art calls off sale of Warhol, Still and Marden after outcry

Last-gasp decision after talks with the US museum directors association comes just before a Sotheby’s auction

The Baltimore Museum of Art's 3 (1987-88) by Brice Marden, withdrawn from the block at Sotheby's Courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art

The Baltimore Museum of Art's 3 (1987-88) by Brice Marden, withdrawn from the block at Sotheby's Courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art

Facing an art-world revolt, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) announced today that it had decided to “pause” its decision to sell valuable paintings by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still and Brice Marden at Sotheby’s. The move, which seems irrevocable, came hours before the Still and Marden were to go on the block tonight to finance museum goals including a broad diversity initiative.

The museum says that its board of trustees and its leadership made the decision after BMA leaders conferred with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). Initially, when the museum broached the sales, intended to generate $65m, early this fall, “the AAMD affirmed that the BMA’s plans were in alignment and accordance with the resolutions it passed in April 2020,” the museum says. The AAMD had loosened its rules in April to allows museums to sell art to finance direct care of their permanent collections, whereas previously they were limited to using the proceeds only to purchase additional works.

“However, subsequent discussions and communications have made clear that we must pause our plans to have further, necessary conversations,” the museum continues. “The BMA is committed to the governance AAMD provides for the museum community.”

The announcement that the deaccessioning had been suspended came less than four hours after a phalanx of US museum figures spoke out against tonight’s sale in a last-gap attempt to halt it. In a terse letter to the BMA’s board chair, 15 former presidents of the AAMD urged the board to “reconsider” the auction.

The current and former museum officials–including James Cuno, president and chief executive of the Getty Trust in Los Angeles, Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art–endorsed an admonition in a memorandum dispatched this week to association members by Brent Benjamin, the AAMD’s current president.

“As past presidents of the Association of Art Museum Directors, we affirm our support of yesterday's statement by AAMD President Brent Benjamin that 'the funds for...long-term needs—or ambitious goals...must not come from the sale of deaccessioned art', and urge the Baltimore Museum of Art to reconsider its planned sale of artworks this evening,” the officials wrote.

The tumult has also involved the submission of a letter this month to the Maryland attorney general and secretary of state by over 200 supporters of the BMA, including former trustees, seeking to block the sales. Two former board chairmen said later that they were rescinding $50m in pledged gifts to the museum, and two prominent artists stepped down from the board while alluding to the controversy.

In his memo to AAMD members this week, Benjamin emphasised that resolutions adopted by the organisation in April “were not put in place to incentivise deaccessioning, nor to permit museums to achieve other, non-collection-specific, goals”.

“The resolutions are designed to address the pandemic and its unpredictable impact on the economy, charitable giving and opportunities for people to gather in groups—all of which affect art museum audiences, operations, and finances,” Benjamin wrote. “I recognise 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,” he added.

The memo did not mention any museum by name. Yet reacting to the BMA's announcement late today, Benjamin said in a statement: “On behalf of AAMD, I am gratified to learn that the Baltimore Museum of Art has decided to reverse course. As we have said consistently, our April 2020 resolutions were not intended to address needs beyond current, pandemic-related financial challenges. We understand that this was a difficult decision, but believe strongly that it was the right one, based on our view that art collections should not be monetised except in very narrow and limited circumstances.”

The works being deaccessioned by the BMA through Sotheby's included Warhol’s The Last Supper (1986), offered in a private sale and projected to fetch around $40m; Marden’s 3 (1987-88), the only painting by the artist in the BMA’s collection, estimated at $10m-$15m; and Still’s 1957-G (1957), similarly the only canvas by the artist in its holdings and estimated at $12m-$18m.

The BMA contended that selling them off would not inhibit the museum from ensuring that “the narratives essential to the understanding of art history could continue to be told with depth and richness” by the museum.

But critics quickly cried foul, pointing out that a similar Warhol had been sold at Christie’s for over $60m in 2017; that the Still was a direct 1969 gift from the artist to the museum as well as his sole painting at the BMA; and that the Marden was also the only painting by the artist in the collection.

The museum’s director, Christopher Bedford, has been a passionate advocate of the sales, arguing that the proceeds could be used to right historical wrongs. Around $54.5m of the hoped-for $65m in proceeds would have gone towards a new “endowment for the future” for the direct care of the collection, generating income that will be used to offset costs for research, conservation, documentation and exhibition of artworks as well as bolstering the salaries of staff members and extending museum hours for the local community.

Around $10m would have gone to the museum’s acquisitions fund, allowing it to “rebalance” its collection by seeking out more works by women and people of colour–“particularly as they interweave with the history and present of Baltimore”, a majority black city, the institution said. And $500,000 would have been directed to a new initiative to promote internal and external diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI) initiatives.

In announcing the suspension of the sales, the BMA said: “We want to affirm our goals as we envisioned them in relation to the endowment for the future. 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.”

“We believe that this effort is not about sacrificing history but about telling a more accurate and complete narrative of art, culture, and people,” it continues. “We do not abide by notions that museums exist to serve objects; we believe the objects in our collection must reflect, engage and inspire the many different individuals that we serve.”

It adds: “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 furore over the planned sales has unfolded amid moves by other US art museums to take advantage of the AAMD’s loosened restrictions. Among them is the Brooklyn Museum, which plans to offer a second round of works tonight–from Monet to Matisse to Dubuffet–at two sales at Sotheby’s after netting $5.6m in its first cycle of sales at Christie’s. Also in the deaccessioning mix at Sotheby’s tonight is the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Carousel (1979) by Helen Frankenthaler, estimated at $2.5m-$3.5m.

Laurence J. Eisenstein, the Washington lawyer and former BMA board trustee who wrote and then drummed up signatures for the letter to the Maryland attorney general and secretary of state, pronounced the BMA's deaccessioning move “dead in the water”.

“We feel this decision affirms the essential roles that artworks, publicly accessible collections and museums play in providing knowledge of the past, offering opportunities for reflection and learning in the present and laying the groundwork for positive transformation in the future," he says. “We look forward to working with the BMA’s trustees and staff to rebuild community relationships and strengthen diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that will ensure the BMA remains relevant and responsive to its community going forward."