Many of America's art institutions are working toward diversity, but how far is too far in pursuit of that ideal?
With mere hours to spare, the Baltimore Museum of Art canceled plans to auction three pieces constituting the core of its contemporary collection, including a silk screen by Andy Warhol, "The Last Supper."
Proceeds from the sale were to fund the purchase of art by women and artists of color and shore up endowments for staff salaries and free admission.
This is too far.
In the run-up to the aborted sale, numerous stakeholders and museum professionals decried the auction as a breach of public trust and called on the Maryland attorney general to halt the transaction. Museum donors rescinded a reported $50 million in planned giving. Three honorary board members quit, though more than 95% of trustees initially approved the sale.
When withdrawing from the auction, museum leaders said they remain committed to their goals of increasing diversity and combating the institution's history of systemic racism.
Fine objectives. But there are ways other than cutting the collection. The museum is capable of fundraising to support the same initiatives.
To jump straight to sacrificing the great for the sake of the diverse was a mistake.
The initial decision to auction the paintings comes during a time of loosened restrictions. In the spring the American Alliance of Museums relaxed rules surrounding "deaccession," or the formal process of removing a work from a collection. This would allow cash-strapped institutions to sell works to keep the lights on and to continue paying salaries.
The Baltimore Museum of Art was in no such position.
Deaccession is a common enough process that happens during the typical curatorial process at every museum. However, it's more common to see second-tier work on the chopping block as opposed to blue-chip works like the Warhol painting, a Brice Marden and a Clyfford Still.
The museum's 11th-hour decision to cancel the sale was the right one. Building a better, more inclusive future for museums does not need to come at the expense of the top tier of its current collection.(c)2020 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC