Should museums sell their art? The Baltimore Museum of Art's auction plans spark outcry

·3-min read

The Baltimore Museum of Art's controversial proposal to auction three works by Clyfford Still, Brice Marden and Andy Warhol from its collections, to raise funds to diversify and maintain its collections, has been shelved. 

The practice, commonly called "deaccessioning," has provoked strong reactions and much debate in the last few months.

"1957-G" by Clyfford Still was estimated to sell for US$12 to 18 million (between €10.3 and 15.4 million) while Brice Marden's "3" was expected at US$15 million (€12.8 million) at a sale at at Sotheby's this evening. Andy Warhol's monumental "The Last Supper" was expected to fetch US$40 million (€34.2 million) at a private sale .

The sale of these pieces, which could potentially have generated US$65 million (€55 million), would have permitted the Baltimore Museum of Art to "rebalance" its collections, adding more works by women and artists of color. The American museum's "Endowment for the Future" financial plan would also have allowed it to fund the research, conservation, documentation and exhibition costs for these new works, as well as increase the salaries of employees and offer longer opening hours.

"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," said the museum in a statement.

The board of trustees and industry group the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), however, were unconvinced. Two Baltimore Museum of Art board members rescinded US$50 million in pledged donations, while the AAMD appeared to reverse the temporary guidelines it had issued in April to help cultural institutions weather the pandemic. These directives had relaxed the rules about deaccessioning to permit US museums to sell certain works to finance the care of their permanent collections.

"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," said Brent Benjamin, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and the director of the St. Louis Art Museum, in an October 27 letter.

While this official statement did not explicitly mention the BMA, opponents of the sale of the Still, Marden and Warhol works seized upon it as proof that the museum's plans were in violation of AAMD directives.

The Baltimore Museum of Art isn't the only US cultural institution contemplating letting go of some of its possessions in response to the pandemic. The Brooklyn Museum recently auctioned off a dozen pieces from its collection at Christie's, hoping to receive up to US$40 million (€34 million) to finance the upkeep of its collections. Among them was Lucas Cranach the Elder's  "Lucretia" portrait, which surpassed its initial estimation of US$1.8 million to see the hammer fall at US$5 million (€4.3 million).