Two Museums Tried to Sell Art. Only One Caught Grief About it.

Two museums deliberate to promote works from their collections at a Sotheby’s public sale on Wednesday evening.

One moved ahead seamlessly, with the Brooklyn Museum reaping nearly $20 million for seven works by artists together with Henri Matisse, Joan Miró and Claude Monet.

The different, the Baltimore Museum of Art, determined to pull its work — by Clyfford Still and Brice Marden — two hours earlier than the closely criticized sale after discussions with the Association of Art Museum Directors, knowledgeable group advancing finest practices within the subject.

If the disparate reactions to the 2 gross sales is a bit bewildering, welcome to the world of deaccessioning, the customarily byzantine course of by which museums eliminate gadgets that not serve their long-term pursuits, whether or not by sale or donation.

It’s widespread apply for museums to promote second-tier or redundant works languishing in storage rooms to generate funds for brand spanking new acquisitions. But museums can run afoul of moral requirements set by the affiliation — and threat being publicly slapped with sanctions that prohibit loans from member museums — when deaccessioning funds are put towards working bills.

But the affiliation relaxed its guidelines in April because it acknowledged the extraordinary monetary pressures that the pandemic had positioned on museums. It stated that for 2 years, museums would have the opportunity to use deaccession funds not solely to pay for acquisitions but additionally to underwrite the direct care of their collections. And, considerably, the group provided leeway in how every establishment outlined such care internally.

Brooklyn and Baltimore had been fast to take benefit.

For Brooklyn, which has laid of 7 percent of its staff since the start of the pandemic, the need was acute. Its director, Anne Pasternak, said the institution was “extremely conservative” in its selection of objects. A Carlo Mollino table, fetching $6.2 million at Sotheby’s, had been considered for deaccession for decades, given the museum’s stronger holdings of the artist’s work. “The Monet happens to be lovely but is not one of his great works nor close to the best in our collection,” Ms. Pasternak said.

Likewise, the museum has been cautious in how the money would be allocated in its collection’s care fund. “We didn’t just say, ‘Here’s all the salaries for the conservators’; we estimated the time they would actually spend caring for an object,” she said.

Baltimore, however, had a balanced budget and no layoffs or furloughs. Rather, its director, Christopher Bedford, who in 2018 deaccessioned seven blue-chip paintings to buy works by women and artists of color, seized on the opportunity to raise funds for more equity-based initiatives at his museum — in a city with a 68 percent Black population.

With his curators and board, he designated the Still and the Marden, as well as a monumental canvas from Andy Warhol’s “Last Supper” series, which together were expected to yield $65 million. The museum said the sale proceeds would be used to acquire more work by underrepresented artists and to create an endowment for collection care that would free up about $2.5 million in the budget for staff-wide pay increases and other equity-oriented measures. Given the deep holdings of late Warhol, works on paper by Marden and the Abstract Expressionist movement as a whole, the leadership felt they could still richly narrate those histories without the works to be deaccessioned.

Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., of the Union Baptist Church in Baltimore, said he hopes the dispute prompts a healthy conversation in America around structural impediments to equality. “Is the value in the art or is the value in the accessibility of others to have access to the art and to have their art valued as well,” he posed.

State officials never publicly intervened in the matter, but the association clarified its position this week in a statement from its president, Brent Benjamin. The funds for “long-term needs — or ambitious goals,” he wrote, “must not come from the sale of deaccessioned art.”

Then, 14 current and former museum directors signed a letter to Baltimore’s board chair asking the museum to reconsider the sale.

The museum ultimately decided to “pause” its plan to sell the works after a phone call Wednesday afternoon between association leaders and Mr. Bedford and Ms. Zamoiski Segal.

But Mr. Bedford made plain in an interview on Thursday that the bigger conversation is not over.

“As an institution, we value the perspectives of colleagues and understand the importance of adhering to the professional guidelines that govern our field,” Mr. Bedford said. “I do believe, though, that the moment has come to more deeply consider the standards by which museums operate. The turmoil we are experiencing is not simply financial; it is the result of entrenched systems that cannot sustain the moment or the future. Our communities are calling us to action, to move beyond words and symbols.”

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