As museums face increasing financial pressures and industrywide demands from staff to create more equitable workplaces, a second institution is taking advantage of the Association of Art Museum Directors’ temporary pandemic-era loosening of its deaccessing guidelines: They now allow the selling of art from museum collections to fund the direct care of collections — not just the acquisition of other artworks.
The Baltimore Museum of Art is deaccessioning three paintings, by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still and Andy Warhol, and expects to receive approximately $65 million from a combination of an auction and a private sale at Sotheby’s in the next several weeks.
Unlike the Brooklyn Museum, which announced the sale of 12 paintings in September after it had to make substantial layoffs, the Baltimore Museum has a balanced budget. With some creative juggling of revenue streams, it intends to use its $65 million windfall to help advance salary increases across the board, invest in diversity and inclusion programs, offer evening hours and eliminate admission fees for special exhibitions.
“This is a vision-based initiative, not desperation-based,” said Christopher Bedford, the Baltimore Museum’s director.
Whether his priorities should be funded through deaccessioning — long a flash-point in the museum field where the directors association has previously sanctioned members that have sold off artworks to pay for general operating expenses — is likely to be widely debated.
Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, while praising the move as “a radical and creative idea that needs to be taken seriously by every museum in the country,” also cautioned that this is not the solution for every museum. “There is a slippery slope here because there are museums that have the wherewithal to solve this issue of inequality with the ranks of museum staff right now without selling one work of art,” he said. “If they wanted to, they could solve this problem.”
In 2018, Mr. Bedford led the museum’s deaccessioning of seven paintings by blue-chip names to bring into the collection new works by lesser-known artists of color, better reflecting the city’s majority Black population. Now he is taking a parallel action to respond to demands from his own staff members to address the extraordinary disparity of compensation between the lower end of the hierarchy and the top that is found at museums around the country.
“This is done specifically in recognition of the protest being led by museum staff to be paid an equitable living wage to perform core work for an institution with a social justice mission — that symmetry between who we say we are and what we actually are behind our doors,” said Mr. Bedford. He has not experienced staff insurrection of the scope being led at some institutions, including the Guggenheim Museum, but he has received substantial feedback that the B.M.A. needs to improve.
The B.M.A.’s game plan is, in fact, in line with how the museum association defined its new resolution active until April 2022, said Christine Anagnos, its director. The first $10 million of proceeds from the Sotheby’s sale will go into the museum’s endowment fund for acquisitions, with an emphasis on artists of color of the postwar era. The rest of the proceeds, approximately $55 million, will be used to create a new endowment for direct care of the collection. This fund should generate approximately $2.5 million annually in income, to cover the salaries of curators, registrars, conservators, preparators, art handlers, administrative staff and fellows, and other collection-related expenses.
The liberal interpretation comes in Mr. Bedford’s choice to reallocate an equivalent $2.5 million — freed up from his $20 million operating budget by the income from the new endowment — to fund his equity and accessibility initiatives that fall outside the purview of collection care. As part of this, every staff position starting with entry-level security officers will be individually evaluated through the lens of market rates and fairness, with pay increases of 3 percent to 48 percent rolling out incrementally over the next three years.
“What the B.M.A. is doing doesn’t surprise me because it feels like a logical extension of the concept about diversifying their collection,” Ms. Anagnos said. “They are using the money that was once used for direct collection care to invest in a range of equity initiatives essential to its mission.”
The choice of which works the museum has selected to sell could also be seen as unconventional. Typically, a museum interested in deaccessioning looks for redundancies or lesser works not often exhibited by major artists.
Warhol’s “The Last Supper” (1986), being offered by Sotheby’s through private sale, is a significant work from a major series but it is one of 15 paintings by the artist in the collection, many also late-career works.
Mr. Marden’s “3” (1987-88), with an estimate from Sotheby’s of $10 million to $15 million, is the only painting by the living artist in the museum’s collection.“There is an implicit rule that a museum doesn’t deacquisition a living artist,” Mr. Marden’s dealer, Larry Gagosian, said on Saturday.
“It is touchier than deaccessioning the work of a deceased artist but not unheard-of,” Mr. Bedford said. “Marden’s contribution to the history of art is more richly narrated in our works on paper holdings than a single painting.” The museum owns 16 other pieces by Mr. Marden but works on paper typically cannot remain on view for long stretches because of light sensitivity.
Still’s painting “1957-G” (1957), with a Sotheby’s estimate of $12 million to $18 million, is the only work in the collection in any medium by the artist. The painting dates to the height of the Abstract Expressionist movement, of which Still has long been considered a pioneer, and was a gift of the artist in 1969 when he lived in Maryland. Mr. Bedford described applying “a different definition of redundancy” based on the museum’s deep holdings of the entire Abstract Expressionist period
“It will enable us to further deepen and complicate the story by adding women and people of color not traditionally part of that canon,” he said. The works to be deaccessioned were approved by the museum’s board of trustees on Thursday.
Franklin Sirmans, director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, has been more conservative in his approach to deaccessioning at his own institution. “I think it’s strange to throw certain things back out there into the public market space,” he said, noting that the B.M.A. works aren’t likely to be bought by another museum.
While Mr. Sirmans praised the Baltimore museum for leading the discussion on how to diversify a collection, he suggested that museum trustees could help achieve that aim by just purchasing new work by artists of color rather than deaccessioning older works in the collection. “What does that mean for the board that perhaps doesn’t work as hard to collect the work of these Black and Latinx artists, as it might have for some of those earlier artists?”
Mr. Bedford conceded that in a different season, at a different institution, raising significant money for salary equity from the board might be possible if an institution had the conviction. “But we haven’t seen that done,” he said. “I do not think in any world Baltimore would have been able to raise $55 million for an endowment to support this initiative absent A.A.M.D.’s recent loosening of their restrictions.”
“If there were ever a time to make a change, that time is now,” he continued. “If that means being modestly more progressive in our interpretation of rules around the appropriate use of funds from deaccessioning, then I think that is not only fair but absolutely imperative.”