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Museums and Deaccessioning – Entering a New Phase of Institutional Art History

By Ellen Maidman-Tanner

Many newspapers, magazines and other news outlets have been covering the recent outrage by members of the board of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), caused by that museum’s decision to sell off some seminal and major works by highly regarded white male artists (Warhol, Marden and Still), in order to care for their current collection, staff, and to use some funds to broaden holdings of work by women and people of color. When I first started reading about the BMA's move (and similar plans by the Brooklyn Museum, and museums in California, Indiana, Texas, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York), enabled by an emergency move of The Association of Art Museum Directors to help art institutions weather the virus, I was both stunned and thrilled. This brouhaha laid bare the obvious question: How is an art museum collection managed to right the wrongs of previously holding mostly (overwhelmingly) white male artists?

That led me to wonder about those who were protesting the moves to deaccession. I decided to do some research for our WCADC readers. It turns out, according to ARTNews, that deaccessioning by museums is nothing new, but perhaps we now see more attention paid to it due to the star power and astronomical costs of some works. The closing paragraph of the article provides a valuable rationale for the process at the BMA:

The backlash against the museum is ongoing. Eleven former trustees have signed an open letter calling for an investigation by the Maryland attorney general, two board members have resigned, and two former chairmen have rescinded pledged gifts. But leadership at the museum has stuck to its guns, saying that the plan would involve parting with the past to move forward into the future. Curators Asma Naeem and Katy Seigel wrote in an op-ed published by the Art Newspaper, “Museums are not mausoleums or treasure houses, they are living organisms, oriented to the present as well as the past, and that is where the fundamental disagreement lies.”

If you want to get the full blast of the “do not sell these works” critics, read this article by Martin Gammon, wherein he states his whole-hearted belief that the donors of the works wanted them to remain where they are, and that they are too important in the canon of art history.

We live in an era of "damned if you do, damned if you don't". While I appreciate how some see these moves by museum boards, curators and administrators as a betrayal of bequests and donors, I personally would rather see more great art by the underserved female and POC artists within major collections. At the end of the day, something has to give, and funds and exhibition space are finite.

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