Now Is the Time: Baltimore Museum of Art Exhibits New Works Acquired Through 2018 Deaccession

Nazia Safi
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This month, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) showcases pieces by underrepresented artists, funded by its 2018 deaccession of works by Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. The exhibition, titled ‘Now Is the Time: Recent Acquisitions to the Contemporary Collection,’ began on May 2nd and will run through July 18th, 2021. In light of the current exhibition, Auction Daily explores the BMA’s history of deaccessioning.

Exhibition View. Now Is the Time: Recent Acquisitions to the Contemporary Collection. Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Exhibition View. Now Is the Time: Recent Acquisitions to the Contemporary Collection. Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

What Is Deaccessioning?

‘Deaccessioning’ refers to the process of permanently removing an object from a museum’s collection. For decades, deaccessioning has been a key component of museum governance. The practice, however, has recently been a source of controversy and debate. 

Traditionally, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) issues guidelines and rules about deaccessioning artworks. Still, many museums faced disputes in recent years after failing to justify their plans. Among the institutions that met criticism time and again is the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Andy Warhol, The Last Supper (1986). Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Andy Warhol, The Last Supper (1986). Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Failed Deaccession of 2020

In the fall of 2020, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced a plan to raise USD 65,000,000 by selling three important works by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still, and Brice Marden. The previous April, AAMD decided to loosen its deaccessioning rules due to the economic strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The association announced that for two years, museums could deaccession as they saw fit. 

The BMA was quick to take advantage. The museum announced the sale of three paintings as a part of its “Endowment for the Future” financial plan. These included Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper, Clyfford Still’s 1957-G, and Brice Marden’s 3. The museum’s director, Christopher Bedford, planned to utilize the funds to pay for salary increases and to diversify the museum’s collection. 

The museum canceled the auction at the eleventh hour amid a maelstrom of both internal and external criticism. Defending the original plan to deaccession, Bedford said that “the most important thing a museum can nurture is in fact not its collection but rather its community.” 

This was not the first time that the BMA’s deaccessioning activities were the talk of the town. Even though the most recent effort became a lightning rod for criticism, the BMA’s previous attempts were successful.

Robert Rauschenberg, Bank Job (1990). Image from The Baltimore Museum of Art.
Robert Rauschenberg, Bank Job (1990). Image from The Baltimore Museum of Art.

The 2018 Deaccession & Now Is the Time Exhibit 

In 2018, the BMA announced a plan to sell off seven works by 20th-century masters as part of its diversification activities. The resulting auction at Sotheby’s included paintings by Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Jules Olitski, Franz Kline, and Kenneth Noland. The auction brought in $16,000,000. 

Over the last three years, the museum dedicated the funds to acquire 125 contemporary artworks by 85 Black, Indigenous, women, self-trained, or otherwise underrepresented artists. Some of the recently acquired works are on view in the BMA’s ‘Now Is the Time’ exhibition, on view through July 18th, 2021.

“This is a show about the economics of the marketplace. The disparity in price between the seven works sold and the 125 acquired speaks to ongoing racism and sexism as reflected in the art market’s diminished valuation of works by women and artists of color,” Christopher Bedford, the BMA’s director, told The Baltimore Sun.

Exhibition View. Now Is the Time: Recent Acquisitions to the Contemporary Collection. Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Exhibition View. Now Is the Time: Recent Acquisitions to the Contemporary Collection. Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Curated by Christopher Bedford, Asma Naeem, Eddie C., C. Sylvia Brown, and Katy Siegel, the show features 26 works. These include pieces by established figures such as Betye Saar, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, alongside emerging artists such as Firelei Báez, Jerrell Gibbs, and Laura Ortman. Many of the works are on display for the first time since their acquisition. 

“The artists featured in this exhibition, and those we have acquired more broadly, are not only diverse in their identities and backgrounds but also represent an extraordinary spectrum of vision, technique, material use, and creative approach. Their works capture innovations across genres and disciplines that dismantle entrenched artistic hierarchies and boundaries. We look forward to sharing these works and the stories they hold with our community,” Bedford said to the AFRO

During the media preview, Bedford advocated for the recent acquisitions and asked the public to support the museum’s actions. Bedford further signaled his optimism that the purchased works will be acknowledged as masterpieces in future centuries.

Thornton Dial, Ground Zero: Nighttime All Over the World (2002). © Thornton Dial/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Thornton Dial, Ground Zero: Nighttime All Over the World (2002). © Thornton Dial/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Other Deaccessioning Controversies 

In 2009, Brandeis University announced its plans to close the Rose Art Museum. The university intended to sell off the museum’s entire holdings, considered one of the most important post-war art collections in New England. The museum’s collection included some 6,000 works. Among them were works by artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns, together worth $350,000,000. Legal bodies in Massachusetts denounced the decision, and a resulting legal settlement barred the university from selling its collection. 

Similarly, an attempted deaccession by the National Academy Museum in New York was heavily criticized by the AAMD in 2008. The association issued the museum a sanction that remained until 2018. The Randolph College Maier Museum of Art and the Delaware Museum of Art’s 2018 deaccessioning efforts also led to sanctions from the AAMD. 

In 2006, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York faced fierce criticism over its decision to sell over 200 antique and premodern works. After much backlash, the American Association of Art Museum Directors and the State Supreme Court gave the gallery the green light to sell. 

Museum deaccessioning will likely continue to stir heated debate in legal, ethical, and social contexts. Although the practice is rarely seen in a good light, it is an important tool for institutions to diversify their collections. Historically, the AAMD has only allowed deaccessioning funds to be used for the acquisition of other works. Museums that stick to this practice rarely see any opposition. But sometimes, when institutions try to use these funds for other purposes, they draw out a passionate debate that continues today.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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