Baltimore Museum of Art loses $50 million in gifts over sale of Warhol

Baltimore Museum of Art loses $50 million in gifts over sale of Warhol

Under fire since announcing plans to sell paintings by Andy Warhol, Brice Marden, and Clyfford Still, the Baltimore Museum of Art stands to lose planned gifts totaling $50 million as a result of the controversy, the Washington Post reports.

By deaccessioning Warhol's The Last Supper, Marden's 3, and Still's 1957-G, the museum had hoped to raise $65 million — $10 million of which would be set aside to acquire art by women and artists of color, $1 million of which would fund equity programs, and $54 million of which would be used to create an endowment in support of efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion within the organization. 

Earlier this month, however, artists Amy Sherald and Adam Pendleton resigned from the BMA board, saying they could not devote the time required to participate fully on the board — without stating outright that they objected to the proposed sale — while more recently former BMA board chairs Charles Newhall III and Stiles Colwill have rescinded verbal gift pledges of $30 million and $20 million, with Newhall telling the Post that other donors he has spoken to are considering canceling gifts as well. BMA board chair Clair Zamoiski Segal told the Post the museum has no record of a pledge or pledges totaling $50 million. But Newhall, who has resigned as an honorary trustee of the museum and asked that his name be removed from the museum's public donor honor roll, has a different recollection. "We never put anything in writing, but I ran that campaign for five years. I'm sure it's in the minutes of the various board meetings," he told the Post.

"I feel that by leaving my name associated with the museum, I'm tactically supporting the new direction," Newhall said in a letter announcing his resignation. "I do not agree with [BMA director] Chris Bedford's vision of rewriting the cannon of art history by rectifying the wrongs of the past. I certainly do not believe that one sells masterpieces to fund diversity." 

Colwill said Bedford and the board were doing irreparable damage to the museum by continuing with the sale. Calling it "an act of a rogue director," he claimed that the deaccession plan has longtime supporters up in arms and warned that the museum may lose out on future gifts of art from collectors. 

The criticism of the planned sale centers around guidelines for deaccessioning works of art, which the Association of Art Museum Directors relaxed in April in response to the negative financial impacts many museums have experienced as a result of COVID-19. By its own admission, however, BMA is financially sound and has weathered the pandemic as well as can be expected. According to Artforum, deaccessioning a work by a living artist such as Marden is  "highly irregular." Five former board chairs have criticized the plan, and a letter signed by a hundred and fifty supporters of the museum, including former director Arnold Lehman, was sent to state officials seeking to halt the sale. In 2018, BMA sold seven works by prominent twentieth-century artists, including Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, to create an acquisitions fund for works by women and African-American artists.

"I support the idea of what Christopher Bedford is trying to do. I don't support the way he's doing it," said Sherry Christhilf, a former member of the accessions committee and longtime supporter of the museum. "It's a sad way, and an easy way. It's easy to take the good stuff and sell it to make money."