I like the Baltimore Museum of Art. It has a lovely collection and a history of landmark shows. Its new director, Chris Bedford, is talented and dynamic. He will become one of the great directors of our time.
No one has to like everything, though. The BMA’s current problem, or thicket of problems, involves its deaccessioning of art. Most museums deaccession art to buy new pieces. It’s perfectly ethical. The BMA’s trustees, spurred by the director, recently sold about $10 million in art at auction to buy works by African-American, Latino, and female artists. The museum aims to speak in a more engaging voice to Baltimore’s people—defined demographically. Recently, it has made two waves of purchases, the latest announced in December.
The museum recently sold a set of pictures that were highly marketable because of the names of the artists—Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland, and Andy Warhol among them—but were otherwise not entirely undistinguished. Warhol’s 1978 Oxidation Painting is hideous, proof in itself that Warhol was an artist of consequence only in the 1960s. His 1979 Hearts, is a rehash of his work from the same period. Kline’s Green Cross (1956), though, is a very good painting. It sold for $4.4 million, far below its $6–8 million estimate, though it’s hard to tell what the museum itself got, since, I believe, it had a guarantee from Sotheby’s. This low haul on the Kline painting wasn’t a reflection of its quality. Green Cross is a tough, demanding painting, both cerebral and what I call a “real slasher.” It’s a painting that belongs in a museum. Its sale shows poor judgment, both by the museum and the marketplace, though buyers aren’t accountable for their taste, while museums are. Rauschenberg’s Bank Job (1979), to be sold privately, is a big mural completed years after Rauschenberg did anything original.
Bedford and the board followed proper deaccessioning procedures. Aside from the mistake of letting the Kline go, they didn’t sell anything remarkable. And even in this mistake, they were, in my opinion, in line with industry standards: museums very often make unwise decisions when they sell art.
Chris Bedford said he wants to do “an unusual and radical act” and “rewrite the art history canon,” a declaration that would frighten anyone were it not rhetorical flourish.
More disturbing is the reasoning behind this campaign. Bedford said he wants to do “an unusual and radical act” and “rewrite the art history canon,” a declaration that would frighten anyone were it not rhetorical flourish. The art historical canon evolves by gradual absorption. This is happening as women and others get the recognition they deserve. I suppose some people like to think of themselves as camping out on the barricades, but the BMA’s move is not truly radical. A few years ago, the artist Mark Bradford said that one way to bring new audiences to the Met would be to open a Planned Parenthood clinic there. Now, getting an abortion in a museum—that’s radical. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be helpful in fulfilling the Met’s mission, but he was certainly thinking outside the box.
It’s hard for me to analyze what the BMA has purchased because I haven’t seen the art in person. The big Jack Whitten mosaic evoking the September 11 attack looks strong. Whitten is an artist with a history at the BMA: it recently hosted his retrospective. Bedford called the mosaic “the most significant acquisition” he’ll ever make, which suggests that the BMA spent a lot of money. New acquisitions from other artists include work by Carrie Mae Weems and Amy Sherald. With these purchases, the museum has spent a small chunk of its new pot of cash.
The basic problem, or false value, underlying these purchases is Bedford’s statement that he doesn’t “think that it’s reasonable or appropriate for a museum like the BMA to speak to a city that is 64 percent black unless we reflect our constituents.” The museum owns more than 95,000 objects. I suspect its holdings of work by black artists is close to the percent chance that my home in the Green Mountains in Vermont will get hit by a tsunami. It sounds like the BMA wants to become a community center. That’s radical, too, but unattainable.
Most museums, like the BMA now, have “equity, diversity, and inclusion” initiatives. As a practical proposition, these assuage white guilt with urgency but do nothing meaningful for the public or for scholarship. They empower bean counters, mediocrities, and passive-aggressive people, the types we all know who try to win by acting like society’s losers. It also induces in some people a degree of maudlin, fake superiority.
If the BMA wants to enhance its relevance during a particularly anguished time, there are better ways to do it than with a public spending spree. The biggest impediments to poor children visiting the museum, for instance, are the cost of school bus transportation and teachers who simply don’t know how to teach using art.
If the BMA wants to enhance its relevance during a particularly anguished time, there are better ways to do it than with a public spending spree.
These concerns about relevance have little to do with the art on the walls. The BMA is particularly well known for its Cone Collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and early Modernist painting and sculpture. If those in charge at the BMA want to reach an audience through art about global warming, immigration, and police killings, Matisse won’t take anyone anywhere. If they want to inspire creativity, love of beauty, or the pleasure of looking closely, and if they want to help people transform raw experience through the power of art, Matisse will give them all they could ever want. What do we think people would prefer? A museum shortchanges its visitors if it thinks they’ll come in search of what they can easily get on the TV news. Don’t we look toward art to take us out of ourselves, to discover new facets in our place in the world?
The latter view of art isn’t escapism. In the real world, people look and think well beyond the end of their identity noses.
Deaccessioning is risky. What the current consensus might suggest is saleable (but not useful to the museum) might make a comeback, or better put, is very likely to make a comeback. Every museum director and curator knows horrible stories, “How could they have been so stupid?” stories, about great art that was shortsightedly sold.
Anyone with a sense of the BMA’s history knows a few, too. The trustees, if they haven’t already, might look at a list of what the museum has lost over the years through deaccessioning and what has replaced it.
The BMA wants to spend lots of money. It has deaccessioned loudly and proudly. The type of art it wants can cost a lot of money, but it shouldn’t and needn’t. When I was a museum director at the Addison Gallery of American Art, I had little acquisition money, about $120,000 a year. That goes a long way, if a curator is entrepreneurial, for those who seek the work of young artists or artists outside of the money-sodden solar system powered by New York’s big galleries.
Now most museums are scrambling to buy things by African-American, Latino, or female artists. There are many new collectors seeking that kind of work, too. This has led to price inflation. The BMA is buying at the top of a market. Years ago, my museum bought a superb Bradford painting for $150,000. It would be unaffordable now. To tell you the truth, though, I’d liked his work for years before I even knew he was black. Though I was better informed by the time we bought the picture, I never felt it explicated any aspect of the African-American experience. It’s richly painted, very abstract, and powerful. I regarded it, first and foremost, aesthetically.
Bradford’s work is strong, but does he speak to a black audience more than, say, to the white, urban bourgeois audience who buys much of his work? The latter is his target demographic. The BMA recently bought a painting by Lynette Yiadom-Boakeye. Called 8 am, Cadiz (2017), it shows a black man reclining. Cádiz is in Spain, and Yiadom-Boakeye is from Ghana and lives in London. I wonder how her work speaks directly to Baltimore, if that is truly the purpose of the Bedford-era BMA.
The museum can indeed do more exhibitions of the work of the artists it targets. These exhibitions don’t need to be expensive. Artists want and need scholarship, too. And donors are more likely to buy work for the museum from a show that demonstrably brings new people through the doors.
A good choice for the BMA might be the photographer Dawoud Bey. He does beautiful work focusing on marginalized teenagers, though his themes are universal to all children. I’ve worked with him on two projects. He’s not famous, in part because he has stayed close to his roots in Chicago and loves his teaching career. His work, I think, is not costly. The BMA would be well advised to do a show of his work.
What about Henri Paul Broyard? He is a superb young black artist. His work is very affordable, in part because he’s young, but also his dealer is young, too, and based out of Portland, Maine. His work has not a whiff of oppression, outrage, or protest. He doesn’t offer what I would reductively call “identity” as a primary theme. Is he to be excluded for these reasons? Torkwase Dyson creates gorgeous, rigorous abstract paintings. Is she not representational enough? Or Jennie C. Jones, who is more of a minimalist? Paul Mpagi Sepuya is one of the best young photographers working today. He’s a figural artist, but blackness, for him, is only one thread of his art. How obvious and one-dimensional does race or gender need to be? If art can be defined in one word—it’s about race or gender or class—it’s unlikely to be very good.
It seems that the most worthwhile thing the BMA can do is focus on emerging artists like those above, along with others such as Troy Michie, Martine Syms, and Sonya Perry. Their work is inexpensive. They need museums to buy it to build their careers. They’re young and energetic, which means they’re likely to engage well with students.
Amy Sherald is a fine, established artist from Baltimore. There’s lots of hype surrounding her now because of her portrait of Michelle Obama. It’s a perfectly good painting, but hardly a masterpiece. It shines only when placed in the dismal world of American official portraiture. Her work is now overpriced. I don’t know what deal the museum made with her to acquire Planes, rockets, and the spaces in between (2018). I think it will be a popular picture, but Beverly McIver is a better painter, as are many other women.
Lots of work by dead white men is underpriced, while art by dead white women has soared beyond the scope of human imagination. Last year, the National Gallery in London bought a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi for £3.2 million. As a rare female Old Master, she is the current poster child for a strange reparations movement underway in museums. Some museums feel they need to address a deficiency that’s really insoluble if the museum cares about quality. For many reasons, few Old Masters were women. That won’t change. Gentileschi on her best day was a middling artist, and that won’t change. Moreover, the painting bought by the National Gallery is ugly. I don’t think there is much of a market for her work among private collectors. A few years from now, the National Gallery will have consigned it to storage.
Similarly, while I continue to admire the BMA’s director and its trustees, I am certain they could have accomplished their goals without breaking the piggy bank.
This isn’t a disaster for the BMA. Its director and board have good taste, and after their recent round of deaccessioning, they have millions to spend. But most museums have directors and trustees whose taste is not as reliable as that of those at the BMA. They’ll try to emulate the BMA’s tactics, and in their hands “equity, diversity, and inclusion” might easily procure junk, junk, and more junk.