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Commentary: Baltimore Museum of Art uses COVID as cover to sell a Warhol. Floodgates open

Andy Warhol's "The Last Supper," 1986, anchors the Contemporary Wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art
Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper,” 1986, right, anchors the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Contemporary Wing, which includes several of his works.
(The Washington Post / Getty Images)

As night follows day, natural disasters bring out the scammers ready to exploit public confusion and fear. The epic calamity of the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.

Since the virus began to spread, the Federal Trade Commission has logged more than 220,000 reports of counterfeit cures, useless insurance policies and other ugly swindles being hawked to an unsuspecting public. At least $155 million has been lost.

Not on that list, perhaps because the sleaze is almost too hard to wrap your head around, is a colossal art museum scandal. If a precedent gets set, the bonfire of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s vanities threatens to take other museums with it.

The BMA recently announced that it would liquidate upward of $73 million in important paintings from its permanent collection. A brief window of opportunity had been thrown wide when one of the nation’s two leading museum professional associations relaxed the rules, hoping to ease expected financial fallout from the COVID-19 tragedy. Baltimore soon ripped open an ethical breach big enough to drive a truck through.

The disturbing Maryland move even managed a twofer, vandalizing the other professional group’s best practices for an art museum’s key responsibility. Direct care of the collection succumbed to cringe-inducing carelessness.

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The liquidation features three contemporary paintings made between 1957 and 1988 by Pop artist Andy Warhol, Minimalist Brice Marden and Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still — major American artists all. Together, the high estimates of the monetary value of the Marden and Still paintings, set for a Sotheby’s auction on Oct. 28, is $33 million.

Brice Marden's "3," 1987-88, is one of three works being auctioned.
(Sotheby’s)

The Warhol, a monumental 1986 canvas that abuts two silkscreened versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in black ink on a vivid yellow background, is being privately offered to collectors through a closed-door sale by Sotheby’s, rather than a public auction. The reported guarantee is $40 million.

The market for late Warhol paintings has been erratic, but that figure is $20 million less than Christie’s, a rival auction house, got at a public auction three years ago for a comparable Warhol from the same series (the late artist’s last). Inexplicably, the BMA did not approach Christie’s for a competitive bid, according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation.

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That ineptitude merely amplifies the bigger scandal.

The planned sell-off was concocted by three museum employees, all contemporary art specialists, according to several people with knowledge of events. The people requested anonymity to speak freely, fearful of retaliation over public disclosure of sensitive information.

Director Christopher Bedford, a former assistant curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, steered a controversial 2018 BMA deaccession of seven works that included two other Warhol paintings. (The Pop icon is typically a top market performer.) Sotheby’s handled that sale too, in which the star lot — Franz Kline’s 1956 “Green Cross” — sold for just $4.4 million on a low estimate of $6.5 million. The auction house reportedly came up nearly $5 million short on the expected final tally.

Second, Bedford created the staff position of chief curator for Asma Naeem two years ago. Her professional history melds art and social justice. Before her four-year prior tenure as associate curator of prints, drawings and media arts at the National Portrait Gallery, Naeem was a New York assistant district attorney.

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Third, Katy Siegel, a critic and professor at Stony Brook University in New York, worked for Bedford earlier at a university museum in Massachusetts. She holds an adjunct research position at the BMA.

The trio developed a pitch to museum trustees for the liquidation plan. In their eyes, the three paintings’ unforgivable sin is possessing monetary value that outstrips their artistic worth. Income generated by the paintings’ sale would fill two endowments — the lion’s share earmarked for direct care of the museum’s collection, plus $10 million set aside for future art acquisitions.

Opponents call on the state attorney general to stop the Baltimore Museum of Art sale of upwards of $73 million in paintings, including a Warhol.

There’s just one hitch. However public-spirited, the plan stomps all over best practices for deaccessioning art, as if no such standards exist.

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Deaccessioning is the word for the routine process of formally removing an item from a museum’s permanent collection. Art that is irrelevant to the institutional mandate, in poor condition, fake, discovered to have been looted — the motivations for a deaccession are many. A conventional practice for collection management, its end result is often, but not always, the art’s sale.

As the art market has ballooned into a multibillion-dollar global industry in the 21st century, topped by revenues for Modern and contemporary art, the lure of cashing in has sent some museum people rummaging through their collection racks in search of perfectly fine works for effortless fundraising. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Palm Springs Art Museum and the Everson Museum of Art in upstate New York are among the recent offenders. Museum art slips from the public realm into unknown private hands.

Deaccessioning concerns have been on the rise for many years. Alarmed, the American Alliance of Museums accepted a white paper on the subject last year.

The document is clear: Deciding whether to deaccession an object should be made “separate from the process of deciding how to use the proceeds.”

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Separating the ends from the means is designed to prevent a museum from getting a program bee in its bonnet and then trolling through its valuable art collection looking for ways to fund it. Which is exactly what the BMA appears to have done.

Uses for the multimillion-dollar proceeds were mapped out first. The Still, Marden and Warhol were chosen to pay for them.

Just so there’s no mistake, the AAM white paper, “Direct Care of Collections: Ethics, Guidelines and Recommendations,” further insists: “In no event should the potential monetary value of an object be considered as part of the criteria for determining whether or not to deaccession it.”

By contrast, Bedford, Naeem and Siegel have been happy to trumpet beneficent institutional initiatives as justification for their big-ticket collection sales. One of those initiatives hits awfully close to home for the trio.

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Employee salaries and benefits, notoriously low in the art museum field, will be enhanced under the rubric of supporting direct care of the collection. In a statement, the museum vigorously denied that the three stand to gain from their deaccession recommendation; but even the endowed positions of director and chief curator are not fully shielded.

Certainly it’s not self-dealing, since trustees, not staff, have the final say over sanctioning the sale. But the spectacle of museum curators and the director lobbying trustees to sell from the collection to address legitimate salary issues is astonishing.

That trustees went for it is alarming.

The “direct care” use of deaccession funds has been contentious for decades. Historically, the Assn. of Art Museum Directors has limited the income’s use to future art acquisitions, forbidding its expenditure to pay for capital projects or museum operations, including salaries.

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Understanding why is not hard: The museum exists to support the collection, not the other way around.

Clyfford Still, "1957-G," 1957
Clyfford Still’s “1957-G,” 1957, is another of the works for sale.
(Sotheby’s)

Tax-exempt museum art is not considered a monetary asset for IRS purposes, and few institutions carry their collections as assets on their accounting books. Pushing a painting from the non-asset column into the asset-only art market carries obvious risks.

Deaccessioning to pay for museum operations, including an array of things like equipment purchases and staff benefit packages or capital projects like adding a new wing, can jeopardize that sequestered status.

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Money, after all, is fungible. Dumping your important Warhol at an auction house to make necessary improvements in operations just moves money from one budget basket into another. It’s beyond dicey. There’s good reason the updated 2019 white paper for the museum alliance puts ethics first in the subtitle.

In 2020, though, something unforeseen happened. A crippling health crisis ran wild, infecting millions, eventually killing hundreds of thousands, devastating jobs in cities and rural areas, upending daily life almost everywhere.

Amid the ruin the BMA saw an opening — and took it.

Last spring, the museum directors group temporarily relaxed its restrictions on the use of deaccession funds. The pandemic, still new and little understood, was exploding. Art museums were closing down, and the financial future of a plummeting economy looked bleak. The change in how a museum could spend the income from invested deaccession funds offered a possible lifeline.

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For a two-year period, the directors’ organization decided that some or all the income could be used for urgent collection care.

“This is a crisis without precedent in our lifetime,” said Brent Benjamin, AAMD president and soon-to-retire director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, when making the April 15 announcement. “Since planning for the future with any accuracy is impossible while earned revenue has stopped and the future of charitable giving is unknown,” he added, “it was important for [us] to take a step that could provide some additional financial support to art museums.”

Christine Anagnos, AAMD staff director, further underscored that financial need — unforeseen and potentially dire — was driving the relaxed restriction. “We recognize the severity of the current crisis and the immediate financial needs of many institutions,” she added.

Baltimore’s museum, though, is facing no fiscal cliff. Prudent belt-tightening surely occurred in its $20-million annual operating budget, but no layoffs or furloughs ensued as they did elsewhere.

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“We are not financially desperate,” Bedford told the Baltimore Sun, which described the museum’s endowment as robust. “That is not the motivation for taking this action. This is a deeply mission-driven decision.”

An exterior view of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The Baltimore Museum of Art has a renowned collection from the 19th century to the present.
(The Baltimore Museum of Art)

A letter to the editor of London’s Art Newspaper from curators Naeem and Siegel, responding to a column condemning the deaccessions, also admitted that “the museum is not in financial straits.”

The AAMD announcement specified that the temporary change was not intended as an incentive for selling museum art. But no good deed goes unpunished: Baltimore’s leadership, in a sordid display that conjures the cold opportunism of disaster capitalism, exploited the deadly health crisis to raid the storerooms.

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In the process, their museum shot itself in the foot.

At an argumentative Zoom meeting where the BMA board of trustees discussed — and approved — the director’s request to sell the three paintings, a former board chair summarily quit. Shortly after, a past chair of the museum’s acquisitions committee telephoned the Maryland attorney general’s office insisting on an investigation. A week later, two dozen prominent past trustees and other angry museum supporters sent a blistering letter to the AG and the secretary of State demanding that they intervene to stop the deaccessions.

It didn’t have to be this way. Rather than trash the art collection, suppose the museum had done some sharp-eyed community-building. Suppose it launched a social equity capital campaign to achieve its goals. The $2.5-million annual expenditure reportedly required to fully fund Bedford’s vision of equity and collection care is relatively modest.

Eight million Americans have slipped into poverty during the pandemic, with Black, Latino and Indigenous people taking the biggest hits. But the nation’s richest people have become $845 billion wealthier during the first six months of COVID-19. That’s a lot of unexpected money gained by just the kind of people who tend to populate art museum boards and fund cultural programs. Imagine a prominent art museum rallying the community for a capital campaign, positioning itself as central to a diversified civic life.

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That plan requires more effort than calling up an auction house, but it could embed the museum within the diverse population of its region in ways that merely selling from the collection cannot. For 40 years, since the Reagan era’s fetid dawn, we’ve built an increasingly unequal society on the lie that the market is the answer to all our problems — a lie that this deaccession maneuver still accepts.

In its aftermath, recriminations swirl in Baltimore, conspiracy theories float, intimidation to ensure silence inside the museum is claimed — all unleashed by an outrageous money grab hidden behind the mask of a deadly virus. However potentially worthwhile Bedford’s program changes might be, they are not worth this.

The Baltimore Museum of Art is now the leading poster child for art collection carelessness. If the sell-off to fund operations sets a precedent for other art museums, the public loss will be immense.


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