Clyfford Still. 1957-G. 1957. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of the Artist, 1969.37. © City & County of Denver, Courtesy Clyfford Still Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Baltimore Museum of Art has decided to sell three major works in part so it can expand ongoing diversity and equity initiatives, such as increasing pay for its staff and offering evening hours.
The works that will be sold are The Last Supper (1986) by Andy Warhol; 1957-G (1957) by Clyfford Still, and 3 (1987-88) by Brice Marden. The museum’s trustees decided to sell the three works on October 1, one day after the museum completed a phased-in reopening after being shut down for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The sales are expected to generate more than $65 million for the museum.

Museum leaders say they aren’t de-accessioning the works out of desperation. Instead, they say, the sale is intended to support an initiative called “Endowment for the Future,” a financial plan that will dedicate funds to care for the collection and help change the way the museum operates. It makes the museum one of the first in the country to take advantage of recent changes in policy from the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) regarding the deaccessioning of art.

In the past, the AAMD has not approved of the practice of deaccessioning works of art – selling works from a supposedly “permanent” collection — to support operations or shore up a shaky budget. It only approved of deaccessioning art in order to buy new works, which the BMA did after it sold seven pieces in 2018.

But in April, after museums around the country were forced to close temporarily to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the national organization resolved not to censure museums that use interest generated by a sale to pay for “direct” care of their remaining collections. The Brooklyn Museum was the first museum to disclose plans to sell works this fall to raise funds for purposes other than buying new works, and the BMA is the second. The AAMD’s relaxed policy is expected to end in April of 2022.

The BMA’s Endowment for the Future plan meets the criteria that the AAMD now finds acceptable for deaccessioning. According to the museum, the money that’s raised will be used to help care for art, maintain and increase salaries for staffers throughout the museum, establish dedicated funds for diversity and equity programs, eliminate admission fees for special exhibitions, begin offering evening hours, and enhance its acquisition budget.

“While we were already considering a deaccession to support our efforts to re-envision our collection prior to COVID, the passage of AAMD’s resolutions gave us an opportunity to use the proceeds from the sale to enact greater change within our museum,’ said director Christopher Bedford, in a statement. “The Endowment for the Future is very much, as its name indicates, about the future—the future that we want for the BMA and for our community and a future that is responsive to our evolving social contexts and the many voices calling for change.”

The museum is financially sound and has taken steps to ensure that the institution can maintain and support its staff beyond the COVID-19 shutdown, Bedford said. “At the same time, the board and I recognize that to truly live up to our mission and values, we need to continue to allocate resources toward diversity and equity measures and that those measures need to address both the substance and content of our collections, exhibitions, and programs, as well as the concerns of the people that create and engage with them.”

The Last Supper is one of more than a dozen works in the museum’s collection by Warhol, who died in 1987. The BMA has more than a dozen works on paper by Marden, now 81, but no other paintings.

The 1957 work by Still is the only one owned by the museum. The Abstract Expressionist was based in Maryland for much of his career and donated the painting to the BMA in 1969. After he died in 1980, while William Donald Schaefer was mayor, his family offered his body of work to the city of Baltimore if it would build a museum to house it and agree to display it under very strict terms, but the city never did so. The city of Denver subsequently built a Clyfford Still Museum, which could be a possible buyer for the Baltimore piece.

According to the museum, the paintings that will be sold were selected following an extensive evaluation by its curatorial team to ensure that narratives key to understanding art history could continue to be told with depth and richness. Even after the sales, directors say, the museum will have a significant collection of post-war and modern art with prime examples of Abstract Expressionism, Post-Minimalism, and late works by Warhol, thanks largely to the efforts of Brenda Richardson, who served as chief curator under former director Arnold Lehman.

The three works will be sold by Sotheby’s this fall. The art by Still and Marden will be sold at auction, and the Warhol will be sold privately.

From the sale, $10 million will go to the museum’s acquisition fund, allowing it to “rebalance” its collection by acquiring artworks made by women and artists of color. Along with a commitment to presenting a comprehensive account of artistic achievement, directors say, the museum is committed to tracing socially grounded histories of western and non-western art through an emphasis on indigeneity, immigration, transnationalism, and “the meetings of and clashes between cultures over time.”

In addition, the museum plans to dedicate $500,000 from the sale toward the creation and implementation of a comprehensive institutional plan for internal and external diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) initiatives and draw additional funds from the endowment for their continuation. Anticipated initiatives include staff training on subjects such as unconscious bias, accessibility, and cultural competency and increased professional development opportunities to help establish a pipeline to sustainable museum careers.

The bulk of the proceeds, approximately $54.5 million, will be used to endow a fund for the direct care of the collection. The BMA expects this fund will generate approximately $2.5 million in interest per year, which will be used to offset costs for the research, conservation, documentation, and exhibition of artworks, as well as the salaries for 46 staffers, including curators, registrars, conservators, preparators, art handlers, administrative staff and fellows.

By adding $2.5 million from this new endowment fund to the museum’s $20 million operating budget, directors say, the museum will be able to reallocate existing funds toward other priorities, particularly to secure and increase salaries for the rest of the staff. This includes employees in front-of-house positions as well as roles across education, marketing, advancement, facilities, and other departments. The BMA expects that it will have the resources to increase both existing and starting salaries, which will be implemented incrementally leading up to and into the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2022.

As part of the Endowment for the Future, the BMA will also draw approximately $590,000 annually toward eliminating admission fees for its special exhibitions and most public programs and extending its evening hours to 9 p.m. one weekday per week. These initiatives work to decrease barriers to experiencing the full range of the museum’s presentations and events and build on previous efforts, such as opening the BMA’s secondary space at Lexington Market, to meet community needs for access. By reducing the financial burden of museum visitation, directors and trustees say, the BMA aims to reach an even wider audience.

“Over the past several years, the BMA has placed considerable focus on issues of diversity and equity, whether in the scope of our collection, the range of our exhibitions and programs, or the makeup of our board and staff,” said board chair Clair Zamoiski Segal, in a statement.

“While we have made great strides, we…have also recognized that more needs to be done,” she said. “The Endowment for the Future is a realization of these long-standing conversations and priorities and is an important next step toward fulfilling our strategic vision.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.