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

In the world of museums, “deaccession” is a divisive term. Describing the practice of removing objects from a permanent collection, it conjures difficult moments in the history of institutions, such as the Detroit Institute of Art’s controversial proposal to sell its art in the wake of the city’s bankruptcy. More recently, cultural workers across the nation have demanded that leadership deaccession works in order to stave off pandemic-related layoffs and other losses that continue to rock the sector. 

The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) is one institution heeding the call to put its human resources above its material ones. Last week, the museum announced a decision to sell three paintings by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still, and Andy Warhol to bolster staff compensation and implement access and equity programs.

The triad of canvases — Warhol’s “The Last Supper” (1986), Marden’s “3” (1987-1988), and Still’s “1957-G” (1957) — will be offered in an auction and a private sale at Sotheby’s over the next few weeks, and are expected to rake in a whopping $65 million.

A total of $10 million will be funneled into the museum’s acquisition fund to increase representation by women and artists of color, while $500,000 from the sale will go toward a plan for diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) initiatives. Approximately $54.5 million will be used to endow a fund to support salaries for 46 staff caring for the collection, including curators, registrars, conservators, preparators, art handlers, administrative staff, and fellows. Projected to generate $2.5 million per year, the fund will also allow the BMA to invest in other access efforts, such as expanding evening hours and eliminating admission costs fo certain exhibits.

Brice Marden, “3” (1987-1988), oil on linen, 84 3/16 x 60 1/16 inches (© The Baltimore Museum of Art / Brice Marden)

Earlier this year, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) lifted penalties on institutions choosing to access restricted funding sources, including endowment funds and income generated by deaccessioned artwork. The organization, which represents 227 museums in North America, had always stood firmly against deaccessioning artworks for any purpose other than new acquisitions, claiming that doing so would pressure museums to monetize their collections. 

The BMA’s move to sell the paintings is part of its “Endowment for the Future” financial plan, developed during the museum’s six-month-long shutdown this year and in accordance with the loosening of AAMD’s guidelines. (Last month, the Brooklyn Museum became the first major US institution to take advantage of the temporary halt in sanctions, putting up 12 paintings at Christie’s to help cover collection care.)

Clyfford Still, “1957-G” (1957), oil on canvas, 108 ⅞ x 92 ⅞ inches (© City & County of Denver, Courtesy Clyfford Still Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

The Baltimore institution has been able to weather the COVID-19 crisis without laying off or furloughing staff so far. Christopher Bedford, the BMA’s director, told the New York Times that the plan was “a vision-based initiative, not desperation-based.”

But Bedford recognized that more remains to be done to ensure inclusivity.

“The board and I recognize that to truly live up to our mission and values, we need to continue to allocate resources toward diversity and equity measures and that those measures need to address both the substance and content of our collections, exhibitions, and programs, as well as the concerns of the people that create and engage with them,” said Bedford in a statement.

However, some have spoken out against the museum’s decision. Brenda Richardson, a former BMA curator who acquired the Warhol for the museum, told the Washington Post that she was “nothing short of horrified” by the news. Kristen Hileman, a former senior curator and head of the BMA’s contemporary department, said she supported the museum’s deaccessioning of seven works in 2018, but does not feel that the most recent move is justified. 

Speaking of the Warhol work specifically, Hileman told the Post, “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.”

The three works, says the museum, were selected “to ensure that the narratives essential to the understanding of art history could continue to be told with depth and richness.” Excluding the deaccessioned pieces, the museum holds 15 paintings, eight prints, three drawings, and several books and portfolios by Warhol, as well as 17 works by Marden. However, there are no other works by Still in its collection.

Appearances on the auction block are rare for Still. The majority of the artist’s work resides in institutions, and the artist was known to be notoriously resistant to selling his paintings. In 2011, four paintings sold for over $114 million at Sotheby’s, with the proceeds going to benefit the Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum’s endowment fund.

In an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun opposing the deaccession, Hiram Woodward, Curator of Asian Art Emeritus at the Walters Art Museum in the city, says a museum’s “primary function is to provide experiences.” The curator believes the museum’s remaining holdings of Marden’s work, all of them on paper, will never match “the experience of a painting 5-by-7 feet in size” that it plans on selling.