Baltimore Museum of Art director defends diversity goals that his institution hoped to meet through art sales

At a conference on deaccessioning, Christopher Bedford says that museum collections are “a literal manifestation” of prejudice and privilege

Andy Warhol's The Last Supper (1986), which the Baltimore Museum of Art had proposed to deaccession in a private sale through Sotheby's Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art

Andy Warhol's The Last Supper (1986), which the Baltimore Museum of Art had proposed to deaccession in a private sale through Sotheby's Courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art

Five months after his plan was derailed, Christopher Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), has issued a ringing defense of his thwarted initiative to sell three major works of postwar art to advance diversity and equity at his institution. Arguing that “the most important thing a museum can nurture is in fact not its collection but rather its community”, he calls for an aggressive reckoning with systemic bias at art institutions “in all categories, using any and all means”.

“Museums are community resources,” Bedford said in a keynote address on Friday at a virtual conference organised by Syracuse University on deaccessioning, or the sale of works from a museum’s permanent collection. “They are not membership clubs. To reach and serve all communities, not just those in historically established spaces of privilege, it is an imperative of the present to reckon with the inequities of the past and the institutional systems that uphold those inequities.”

Traditionally the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), a watchdog group, has limited its members to using proceeds from deaccessioning solely to buy more art. But in a stopgap measure last April to help museums address financial shortfalls related to the coronavirus pandemic, the association decided to loosen its rules for two years, allowing them to use the income from art sales to cover expenses related to direct care of collections like curators’ and conservators’ salaries.

The decision has riven the museum world, with some arguing that the move sets institutions on a slippery slope toward using their collection as fungible assets that can be sold to pay for expenses such as a roof repair. The range of opinions was on full display at the conference, where museum directors, curators, attorneys, academics and artists debated the definition of “direct care”, efforts to redress the underrepresentation of female artists and artists of colour in museum collections, legal strategies for defending deaccessioning decisions and the vulnerability of university or other museums whose parent institutions might choose to treat collections as an asset that could be sold to fund basic operations.

At a session on defining direct care, Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, launched a spirited defense of the institution’s ongoing sales–around $35m raised so far–to finance the care of collections. “We ought to be more than static repositories for art,” she said. “It is unrealistic to accumulate endlessly.” At the same time, she cautioned that even as museums are “re-examining their values”, she does not support using proceeds from deaccessioning to cover basic operating costs.

Bedford has remained a kind of lightning rod for more permissive policies on art sales since last October, when he announced a plan to sell three blue-chip postwar works by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still and Brice Marden. His hope was to raise $65m to finance goals such as raising staff salaries, the top priority; the acquisition of postwar works by men and women of colour; offering free admission to special exhibitions; allowing the museum to remain open until 9 p.m. one weekday per week; and creating a plan to champion racial and gender equity at the museum.

The sales were cancelled at the 11th hour after concerns were raised by the AAMD about the broad nature of the museum’s goals. “While we elected not to sell the three paintings in question in order to remain compliant with AAMD’s guidelines,” Bedford said, “I do not concede that those guidelines should go unchallenged and unquestioned as the best possible standards to advance the cause of museums in the 21st century.”

“Art history itself is a story of recognition and rupture,” he said. “By that I mean, we valourise artists who recognise all that came before them, and blow a hole in that history to make a new space for themselves. The future we imagine from museums will not be achieved with the urgency necessary if we move at the plodding pace dictated by unchallenged habits.”

Bedford pleaded for “radical change” to meet “just demands”, including fair compensation and inclusive leadership and accountability. “As museums announce their commitments to diversity, equity, access and inclusion,” he said, “we must also look closely at the ways we continue to fall short of these goals.”

He noted that Baltimore’s population is 64% black. “In 2016, when I arrived at the museum” as director, “our audience was 72% white. Our permanent collection is 96% male. In our 107-year history there’s never been a black chair of our board. When I arrived at the BMA, there was not a single curator of colour.” Until 2017, he added, there was no person of colour on the museum’s senior leadership team.

Bedford said that while progress had been made in those categories, “that is not the point here. The point is to reckon with the systemic nature of bias in our history as the basis for action beginning now in all categories, using any and all means.”

Changing the white-male-dominated collection will involve than “a methodology of pure addition”, he cautioned. “For an account that is not only equitable but true, you cannot simply plug in a few black artists from the last 10 years. You have to rewrite the whole story.”

The collection, he concluded, should not be sacrosanct. “Like the museum as a whole, it is highly white-centred, and it is the repository of extraordinary value. In fact, it is the most literal manifestation of the systems of prejudice and privilege upon which Western museums have been constructed. It is not enough to look everywhere but the collection to identify a means of repair.”

Bedford noted that the museum sold seven works from its collection in 2018 to raise $16.2m to support the acquisition of works by female artists and artists of colour. Since then it has addressed “glaring gaps” in its collection by acquiring 95 works by 82 artists, he says.

Later, the BMA director took part in a panel on “Making the Case for Change–or Not” with Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art; Thomas Campbell, director and chief executive of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Linda Harrison, director and chief executive of the Newark Museum of Art; and Tracey Riese, trustee and chair of the collections committee at the Brooklyn Museum.

Campbell, who has said that the AAMD’s relaxation of rules on art sales could open the floodgates to monetising collections, warned of a loss of trust among donors. If museums are allowed to use art sale proceeds for collections care, he also argued, “it will take the pressure off boards [of trustees] to do their work” in securing the financial futures of the art institutions they oversee.

He warned of a “false dichotomy” between focusing attention on a museum’s permanent collection and broadening and diversifying its audience. “I think the two go together,” he said. And he emphasised that he saw deaccessioning as an important tool for raising money to diversify collections as opposed to financing direct care.

Lowry, who has argued that museums have far too many works in storage, said he was nonetheless uncomfortable with using deaccessioning to finance equity in salaries, as supported by the BMA. “That doesn't mean that in the context of the mission that Baltimore sets for itself that could potentially be a viable use–not in our current context, but after debate and change,” he said. He added that he could more easily entertain the possibility that the proceeds could go toward museums’ educational initiatives. He also raised the idea that revenue from art sales could flow into an endowment that could support a range of goals in addition to art acquisitions.

But for now, he said, institutions are too overwhelmed by the pandemic and their declines in revenue to develop a cohesive joint strategy on deaccessioning. “You can't have a good conversation in the middle of a crisis,” he said. “We're all in this pandemic, we're all reeling. There's not a single one of our institutions that hasn't suffered.”

In a reflection of the divide over AAMD guidelines on deaccessioning, members of the association voted 91-88 this month against asking its trustees to explore a permanent change in its deaccessioning policy that would extend current permission to sell art to finance direct care of collections.