Selling Point

Julia Pelta Feldman on deaccessioning as restitution

The Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images.

EARLIER THIS MONTH, France’s National Assembly took a step toward the restitution of colonial plunder promised by President Emmanuel Macron three years ago, voting unanimously to return twenty-six objects to Senegal and one to Benin. That same week, the Dutch government published an official report that strongly recommends the return of looted cultural objects, and even suggests that important artifacts legally purchased from former colonies be considered for repatriation. Though the scope of the French legislation is narrow—Beninese President Patrice Talon expressed disappointment that France is not currently seeking more systemic reform, rather than approving restitution claims case-by-case—it is an encouraging sign that the country plans to follow Macron’s words with meaningful actions, just as the Dutch report hopefully indicates a larger shift in European attitudes toward restitution.

In the US, however, the good news from Europe was drowned out by a very American uproar. Taking advantage of the American Association of Museum Directors’ temporary relaxation, in light of the Covid-19 crisis, of their stringent guidelines on deaccessioning, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced that it would sell three major works: Brice Marden’s 3, 1987–88, the museum’s only painting by him; Clyfford Still’s 1957-G, 1957, the institution’s sole Still and a gift from the artist; and a large, bright yellow canvas from Andy Warhol’s 1986 “Last Supper,” his final series. Altogether, the BMA hoped to raise sixty-five million dollars. Critics reacted with rare vehemence, and hours before the Sotheby’s auction of the first two works was to take place, the museum withdrew them.

Deaccessioning is reliable fodder for art-world scandals. But this plan was unusual, and the vitriol aimed at BMA director Christopher Bedford and the curators responsible, Asma Naeem and Katy Siegel, has been particularly bitter. Other museums have taken advantage of the AAMD’s new guidelines, active until April 2022, which are explicitly aimed at helping institutions survive the pandemic—and which still strictly designate funds won through deaccessioning to “collection care.” The BMA’s plan was to devote $10 million to the acquisition of new works and to create an endowment of $54.5 million for the maintenance of their collection, the estimated $2.5 million yearly interest of which was to be used to increase salaries, extend evening hours, and enable free entry for special exhibitions. Initially, AAMD executive director Christine Anagnos had found the museum’s plans to be within its strictures. “Any conversation about deaccessioning—or, really, any area of art museum operations right now—has to be seen in the context of the two big present challenges,” she told The Art Newspaper in October. “One is the pandemic, and the other is the ongoing work to address a range of DEAI [diversity, equity, access, and inclusion] needs; both are important and both require resources.” In an interview with the same publication, Bedford emphasized his institution’s commitment to paying the entire staff a living wage, citing in particular the decision to increase security guards’ starting pay from $13.50 to $20 per hour. As in 2018, when the BMA made waves by selling works by well-known artists (all of them male and white) in order to purchase works by women and artists of color, this planned deaccession was meant to work against discrimination embedded in the museum’s history, structure, and collection. Unlike the Brooklyn Museum, the Pasadena Museum of Art, and the Everson Museum, all of which recently sold millions in art, the BMA is not in financial trouble. As Bedford emphasized, “That is not the motivation for taking this action. This a deeply mission-driven decision.”

Left: Clyfford Still, 1957-G, 1957, oil on canvas, 108 x 92” © City & County of Denver, Courtesy Clyfford Still Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: Brice Marden, 3, 1987–88, oil on linen, 84 3/16 x 60 1/16" © The Baltimore Museum of Art / Brice Marden.

Dissenting trustees were incensed; two former chairmen of the board rescinded pledges to donate a total of $50 million. Brenda Richardson, the curator responsible for acquiring the Warhol for the museum, was “nothing short of horrified.” For Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times, “The sleaze is almost too hard to wrap your head around.” Martin Gammon, an art advisor who has written a book on deaccessioning, called the plan an “onslaught of unbridled commodification.” The AAMD, too, grew uncomfortable, emphasizing that the special resolutions they adopted “are designed to address the pandemic and its unpredictable impact,” and “were not put in place to incentivize deaccessioning, nor to permit museums to achieve other, non-collection-specific, goals.” Ultimately, the AAMD convinced the museum to stop the sale. Deaccessioning, many critics believe, should not be instrumentalized, no matter how worthy the museum’s plans for its yield.

Yet restitution, too, is a type of deaccessioning: through it, an object is removed from the otherwise inviolate realm of a museum’s permanent collection and finds a new home. Unlike many other instances of deaccessioning, this occurs not because the object itself is in some way flawed, damaged, or otherwise undesirable, but because it is the right thing to do. Indeed, restitution would mean little if the artworks and artifacts in question were not precious and important. It represents an acknowledgment of the colonial pillaging that undergirds many of the world’s finest museums, a demonstration of respect to the people who were robbed, an apology to their descendants, and a commitment to redress historical abuse.

British colonial forces with loot from the royal palace in Benin City during the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897. Photo via British Museum.

Restitution is widely considered a just and appropriate form of deaccessioning. Might there be other circumstances under which deaccessioning could be considered a form of restitution? For decades, museums that collect modern art have privileged certain artists and art histories at the expense of others. Collection diversification is not simply a worthy goal, it is—like restitution—a necessary correction of inequities embedded deep within museums’ structures, histories, and collections. As I wrote earlier this year, this problem demands a different kind of indemnity—what might be called a restitution of significance: restoring forgotten or ignored artworks to their place in art’s histories. Museums that deaccession works to diversify their collections indeed give up a piece of themselves, but they do so in pursuit of a new wholeness.

Restitution is widely considered a just and appropriate form of deaccessioning. Might there be other circumstances under which deaccessioning could be considered a form of restitution?

But this time around is different from 2018, when the BMA’s sold a total of seven works by Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline, Jules Olitski, and Kenneth Noland and used the funds to buy works by Jack Whitten, Amy Sherald, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and other important artists. Compared to The Last Supper, the two Warhols sold in 2018 were of middling quality, and Rauschenberg’s enormous Bank Job, 1979, is no masterpiece, either. Olitski and Noland were overhyped in their day by Clement Greenberg and his followers. Kline’s Green Cross, 1956, was, admittedly, a treasure. But all five artists whose works were deaccessioned were still well represented in the museum’s collection after the sale. Another difference is in BMA’s intentions: The imbalance it hopes to correct is in its relationship with its employees and audience, not only in its collection. Yet if restitution means surrendering the ownership of an artwork—even or especially a treasured one—in pursuit of justice, the BMA’s new plan might also be understood this way. Critics of deaccessioning worry that curators will succumb to mere fashion. But women and artists of color are not a trend, and neither is a security guard’s right to a living wage.

Typically, deaccessioning favors collection redundancies and works of lesser quality, as in the bulk of the Brooklyn Museum’s recent sales. This is because, usually, the only justification for intervening in the collection is to benefit the collection itself. Hence Gammon’s outrage, and Knight’s insistence that “The museum exists to support the collection, not the other way around.” Bedford addressed this view directly: “This concept that an institution exists to serve its collection is, in my view, fundamentally faulty. I think that we as an institution exist to serve our community.”

There is an inevitable clash between progressive values and museum collections, which are inherently conservative. Today, this word is often considered a synonym for “regressive”—and not without reason. But caring for the past, and making plans for that care to continue into the future, is not at all regressive. Fundamentally, conservatism means valuing what already exists over what might yet come into being. Progressivism, alternatively, cherishes the possible over the extant. Both of these tendencies are vital to museums, but they are in conflict. Curators and directors should not see their collections as expendable. But they should not see their staff that way, either.

Bedford’s words may sound radical, but they reflect the values of many modern museums, which increasingly see education, public events, and temporary exhibitions as central to their programming, not mere extras. Last year, when the International Council of Museums solicited its members for new definitions of what a museum is and does, they received hundreds of responses—many of which deemphasized the stewardship of objects, instead focusing on interpretation, public service, and community responsibility.

Andy Warhol, The Last Supper, 1986, synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 78 x 306" © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

None of this means that a museum should sell artworks to fund any “program bee in its bonnet,” in Knight’s superbly dismissive phrase. The AAMD has recognized the pandemic as a new and acute crisis for museums. But what of the ongoing crisis of income inequality—closely mapped to racial and gender disparities—which, despite museums’ increasing concern for and outreach toward their “communities,” has continued to fester within their own walls? (Fair pay for museum security guards is a question not only of economic but also of racial justice, as Fred Wilson indicated three decades ago.) Even before the pandemic, museum leaders moved aggressively to thwart unions; today, lower-level staff are more vulnerable than ever. When will this situation grow desperate enough to count as an emergency?

Knight charges that the BMA “exploited the deadly health crisis to raid the storerooms.” Gammon, by wrapping the word “inequality” in quotation marks, similarly insinuates that the worthy-sounding attempt to redress it is really just a front for some other, nefarious plan. But it is hard to imagine what might be “behind” the thwarted sale—that is, unless one suspects it to have been motivated by a hatred of white men and their art. No serious critic would dare to say this outright, but some of them surely believe it. Many in the art world are likely alarmed by the BMA’s explicit efforts to rewrite the canon of postwar American art. Whether achieved through deaccessioning or other means, making room for new voices and stories inevitably means paying less attention to artists like Warhol, Marden, and Still—though hardly throwing them out with the garbage. Seemingly offended on their behalf, Knight inveighs that “the three paintings’ unforgivable sin”—the only reason they were to be sold—is that they possess “monetary value that outstrips their artistic worth”—implying, I suppose, that the paintings are victims of their own eminence, a kind of “reverse racism” applied to artworks. But these three canvases were chosen precisely because they are desirable and valuable; their sacrifice is commensurate with the wrongs to be righted.

Still, while I am not as invested in these artists’ importance as these critics seem to be, they are right to challenge Bedford’s nonchalance in parting with their works. In contending that Still himself is “redundant” to the story of Abstract Expressionism, and in his dubious claim that “Marden’s contribution to the history of art is more richly narrated in our works on paper holdings than a single painting,” Bedford presented the planned sale as an easy decision; I hope that it was not. (As Mary Carole McCauley of the Baltimore Sun pointed out, the museum’s 1989 acquisition of The Last Supper was partly motivated by a desire to collect work by queer artists.) Bedford and his team should not pretend that selling these paintings wouldn’t have been a sacrifice. First of all, because it is the truth, and second, because recognizing the loss would have emphasized the depth of their commitment to fairness, diversity, and justice. As the AAMD has suggested with its new policy, this sort of deaccessioning should be reserved only for absolute necessity. In its willingness to part with its treasures, the Baltimore Museum of Art has acknowledged that the art world’s crisis won’t end with the pandemic.

Julia Pelta Feldman is an art historian, curator, and salonnière. A postdoctoral researcher on the project Performance: Materiality, Conservation, Knowledge at the University of the Arts, Bern, she is also director of Room & Board, a former artist’s residency that is now commissioning socially distanced artworks.