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Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper, 1986, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo: Romana Klee/Flickr.
Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper, 1986, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo: Romana Klee/Flickr.

Baltimore Museum of Art Faces Multiple Calls to Cancel Artwork Sale

The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) has come under fire from a host of critics demanding the institution cancel its imminent sale of three major works in an attempt to raise money to support curatorial and staff salaries and to purchase supplies to be used in the care of the museum’s holdings. Slated to be deaccessioned on October 28 through Sotheby’s are Brice Marden’s 3, 1987; Clyfford Still’s 1957-G, painted during the eponymous year; and Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper, 1986. Together, the works are expected to fetch some $65 million.

Among critics’ allegations are that the museum secretly sold the Warhol work at a tremendous discount; that the deaccessioning of the works does not fall within the guidelines established by the American Alliance of Museums; that the loss of the works will leave a gap in the institution’s collection; and that BMA director Christopher Bedford introduced a conflict of interest in asking the museum’s curatorial team to vote on a plan that would directly enrich them. Of note also is the museum’s decision to deaccession a work by a living artist—in this case, Marden—a highly irregular move.

BMA has refuted these accusations, explaining that curatorial staff would not benefit from pay increases due to the sale and that all conflict of interest allegations are unfounded. “The BMA’s deaccession provides fresh opportunity for curators to reshape the narratives told within its walls and to present a fairer and more fulsome art history,” the museum added in its press release. “Equally, this effort acknowledges the museum’s dual responsibility to create an internally equitable structure and an externally equitable and mutual relationship with its diverse publics.”

To date, two separate open letters calling for the sale’s cancellation have been penned. The first, delivered to Maryland’s attorney general and secretary of state on October 14 and described in the Los Angeles Times as “blistering and closely argued,” was collectively written by twenty-three prominent supporters of the museum and has since gained some 150 signatures, most recently those of art historian Michael Fried, former Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) director Arnold Lehman, and former board member Stiles Colwill, who quit over the decision to sell the works. The second, addressed to the BMA board of trustees, arrived on October 19 and was written by former board member Laurence Eisenstein, who led the charge in writing the October 14 missive.

Among those in the media demanding the sale’s cancellation is Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Christopher Knight, whose scorching op-ed—headlined “Baltimore Museum of Art Uses Covid as Cover to Sell a Warhol. Floodgates Open”—was published in the LA Times this week. 

In an article published in The Art Newspaper last week, BMA curators Asma Naeem and Katy Siegel defended the sale against those who “consider only those artists already anointed by market value,” and emphasized the opportunity the deaccession would provide to diversify the museum’s collection and better compensate its staff. “Museums are not mausoleums or treasure houses,” they wrote. “They are living organisms, oriented to the present as well as the past, and that is where the fundamental disagreement lies.”