Last month, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) announced a plan to sell seven works by dead white men from its permanent collection, in order to buy art made by living African-Americans and women. The goners include Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, and Kenneth Noland. The museum’s staff chose the works with considerable care. The director, Christopher Bedford, has been forthright about the museum’s project to acquire art by black artists, “the most important artists working today.”
Almost all museums sell art to buy art. It’s always tempting to time the market, and the auction houses love it. Besides, fundraising for acquisitions is difficult. Potential donors tend to see art, especially new art, as overpriced. Directors are always raising money for something and understand that asking a donor for money to buy art means that they can’t then be asked to fund operating or capital expenses. “Collection development” through bequests of art or lifetime gifts is vital, though a director is then stuck with what the donors collected, and the museum might not acquire what an encyclopedic museum like Baltimore needs to stay current. Generating income for art purchases through selling art is the only way to get big money. A good director or curator is acquisitive by nature.
The problem with deaccessioning is simple: what might seem unimportant now sometimes becomes priceless later. Every director and curator knows horror stories about selling art. For instance, many American museums sold their best Hudson River School paintings in the 1940s and 1950s. At the time, nobody took them seriously, and most directors looked at them with contempt. Starting in the 1970s, tastes changed, but the art was already out the door.
The paintings that the BMA wants to sell feel historical when seen with today’s eyes—not musty or passé, necessarily, but from another time and place, as if they were medieval Madonnas and Child. Rauschenberg and Noland created what was once considered bleeding-edge art, but, aesthetically gorgeous as their paintings are, they don’t speak to today’s concerns. The museum wants art that’s relevant to its target audience: Baltimore’s large African-American community. Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art don’t cut it.
The museum estimates that the art headed for the auction block will generate about $12 million, with $10 million going to an endowment generating $500,000 a year to buy the work of living artists. The museum will spend the balance for one-shot purchases over the next two or three years. Bedford likely wants to buy a painting by Mark Bradford, whose work he has championed. Bradford is a superb artist whose work has ascended from modest prices a few years ago into the millions today. I think his new paintings are overpriced, though. African-American art is the current fashion. Some of it is good; lots of it isn’t. Paying a few million in pursuit of the hottest thing when the paint is barely dried doesn’t seem wise.
The museum already has endowments restricted to art acquisitions; these produce $475,000 in income each year, a princely sum for a regional museum. When I became director of the Addison Gallery, I thought its acquisition money—about $125,000 a year—was puny, but I learned quickly that $125,000 can go a long way, if curators and the museum director have a disciplined eye. Yes, there were some things we just couldn’t buy. A great painting by Rothko can cost $50 million, but I knew that someday, possibly 50 years from now, someone would give a peak-period Rothko to my museum. If you think long term, that’s something you accept. With modest spending, a museum can buy work by a brilliant young artist for whom joining a great collection like the BMA is transformative. For the director and curator buying the work, it’s deeply gratifying. And for a skinflint Vermonter like me, there’s lots of love to be found in a good deal. But selling low and buying high to satisfy the latest ideological demands is pennywise and pound foolish for the art-loving public.
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