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The Lesser of Two Evils: The Ethical Conundrum of Deaccessioning

Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) / Alamy

It was a case of the lesser of two evils, but a year on its worth looking back at the case of Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and its plans to sell three works of art in its collection to raise $65 million for Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI) initiatives. This money would go to support its Endowment for the Future plan announced in October 2020 to extend public visiting hours to 9pm on one weeknight per week to accommodate visitors who work, to increase the base wage for hourly workers, and to establish diversity and equity initiatives throughout the museum.

This action did not violate the Association of Art Museum Director’s (AAMD) policy because the AAMD currently allows museums to use the proceeds from the sale of deaccessioned art to pay for general operating expenses through April 10, 2022 due to the hardships museums are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Should the BMA sell works of art that are held in the public trust in order to put practices fostering diversity, equity, access and inclusion into effect? Is this the most ethical avenue to acquire funds for DEAI work?

Ethical issue

The ethical issue at play deals with the circumstances surrounding the deaccession. When the BMA deaccessioned seven works by white, male artists in 2018 to obtain the funds needed to diversify their collection by purchasing works by women and people of colour, many donors and curators supported this goal of correcting the museum’s collection of works by predominately white and male artists. The BMA justified this action by explaining that it would further its goal of catering to its home city of Baltimore, whose population is 60% African American. While problematic given that few works of art were collected from Baltimore artists using this money, this does fulfil the AAMD’s policy on deaccessioning, which “should be done in order to refine and improve the quality and appropriateness of the collections”.

Visitors enjoying the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) / Alamy

As the policy specifies, museums are allowed to deaccession redundant works of art, or more than one work by the same artist or works of lesser academic value. The three paintings slated for deaccessioning in October 2020 – Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper (1986), Brice Marden’s 3 (1987-1988), and Clyfford Still’s 1957-G (1957) – do not fall into this category. Both Warhol’s and Marden’s paintings were the largest and most important works by those artists in the museum’s collection, and the painting by Clyfford Still is the only work of art by Still in the collection and only one accessible for public viewing in Maryland. It was a personal gift from the artist to the BMA during his lifetime, given to an institution close to his home in New Windsor, Maryland where he lived twenty years prior to his death.

Deaccessioning and disposal – two separate issues

As the American Alliance of Museums specifies, the deaccessioning and disposal of objects are two separate processes and “in no event should the potential monetary value of an object be considered as part of the criteria for determining whether or not to deaccession it.” In the case of these three works, the BMA chose to deaccession three works of art by high profile artists in order to obtain the most money with the sale of the lease number of objects in the collection, directly contradicting this policy put in place by the AAM when it responded to the issue surrounding the deaccessioning of objects at the Berkshire Museum. The Berkshire Museum sought to deaccession objects to raise money for their museum’s new mission and ended up in hot water after deaccessioning a work of art by Norman Rockwell, that similar to Still’s painting, was gifted to the museum by the artist himself to his hometown.

At the last minute in February 2021, three donors stepped forward to donate $1,460,000 for DEAI initiatives: $1m from philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton, $350,000 from The Rouse Company Foundation, and $110,000 from philanthropist Jeffrey Legum. If the sale of these objects can be halted by fundraising through donors and by a much smaller donation than the $70m expected from the sale of these three works, why should it have even been on the table as a fundraising mechanism in the first place? The Baltimore Museum of Art should instead have made the Endowment for the Future plan known widely to donors, even in its initial stages, and fundraised specifically for the plan.

As the BMA learned, there are donors eager to raise wages among museum workers and increase access to works for the public. Seeking out donors would ensure that this plan is self-perpetuating instead of dependent on one sum of money from the sale of works of art. By establishing relationships with donors committed to DEAI efforts, the museum can lay the fountain for future practices that further these initiatives and show their commitment to preserving the works of art in their permanent collection in the interest of the public trust.

About the author – Emma Cieslik

Emma (she/her) is an emerging museum professional who has worked as an intern and contractor in curatorial, collections management and education roles in a number of museums in Washington DC and across the US. She is currently pursuing an MA in Museum Studies at George Washington University.

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