BMA Director Christopher Bedford, who believes Warhol would have given the sale his “hearty blessings,” has said the museum is in good financial shape. The underlying motive for the sale, Bedford said Friday, was to address systemic racism and injustice that “should have been addressed with determination centuries ago.” Those factors, he added, provide “more than enough justification” for the museum to sell the works.
“The moral imperative,” he said, “prevails over all.”
Brenda Richardson, the former BMA curator who acquired the Warhol for the museum, told The Washington Post that she was “horrified” by the decision. “Nothing short of horrified. I would think that such a thing would be unthinkable.”
The decision comes two years after a tranche of de-accessions at the BMA. In 2018, the museum sold seven paintings, including works by Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland, for $16.2 million. It used the proceeds to purchase works by women and artists of color.
Former BMA curator Kristen Hileman supported the 2018 de-accessions. But not these.
“I do not feel that it’s justified,” Hileman said Friday. “It took courage and conviction for Brenda Richardson to center the discourse of contemporary art at the BMA around a queer artist in the late 1980s and early ’90s. She balanced the museum’s well-known Matisse holdings with an exceptional grouping of Andy Warhol’s late paintings, anchored by ‘The Last Supper.’ ”
Hileman, who resigned as senior curator and head of the contemporary department at BMA last year and is now an independent curator based in Baltimore, acknowledged that museums are making important moves to address paternalism and privilege in the field.
“Why wouldn’t one leave this extremely important decision about how to use [millions] worth of the Baltimore community’s cultural assets to future decision-makers, who reflect greater racial, gender and socioeconomic diversity in their backgrounds and perspectives?” she asked.
The sale comes after the Association of Art Museum Directors temporarily changed its de-accession guidelines to give cash-strapped museums more flexibility during the coronavirus pandemic.
Association Executive Director Christine Anagnos said Friday that she was not concerned about museums taking advantage of the loosened restrictions around de-accessioning by selling off their collections. She said the temporary change applies only to the interest, not the principal, from any sales.
“Museums de-accession works of art all the time,” she said. “What we did is give them a little flexibility for how they use the interest from those funds.”