Baltimore Museum Says Goodbye Warhol, Hello Younger, More Diverse Collection

May 19, 2018
Originally published on May 19, 2018 9:44 am

A piece by the artist Kerry James Marshall was auctioned off this week and became the highest selling piece by a living black artist. "Past Times," which is part painting and part collage, features black people relaxing, boating, playing croquet along a river.

Also in that auction were works by Andy Warhol and Franz Kline — they were being sold by the Baltimore Museum of Art, which is planning to use the money from the sales to acquire more pieces specifically by women and artists of color (and maybe their own version of a Kerry James Marshall.)

Bidding among the well-dressed crowd at Sotheby's auction house in New York started at over $2 million dollars for the Warhol. Called "Oxidation Painting," it's a rust colored splatter work made out of paint and urine.

When a museum sells off pieces from their collection, there's a fancy ten-dollar term for it: Deaccession. "It's a very, very long, attenuated, moderately agonizing process to deaccession, and it should be," says Christopher Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

A museum selling art is a little different from, say, you selling your old iPhone for a better one. That's because when a museum obtains a piece of art, it's making a sort of compact with the public, saying "I am buying this specifically so that you and the other people in this community can come and see it." To sell is to sort of breach that compact.

Museums often get in trouble for not deaccessioning the right way. For example, in Massachusetts recently, things got heated when the Berkshire Museum announced they'd be selling some pieces. Carol Diehl campaigned to save that art; last month she told a public TV station in New England that "It's like your mother selling your heirlooms that you're supposed to get."

The Berkshires deaccessioning was opposed by the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors — groups that make the rules for this sort of thing. Those groups did, however, give their blessing to the Baltimore Museum of Art to sell pieces by Warhol, Kline, Robert Rauschenberg and others. The idea is to make the collection better reflect the city — which is about 60 percent black.

"We're actually not saying in any sense that those white males that dominate American museum collections are an illegitimate part of history," says museum director Bedford. "They are absolutely a part of history."

The pieces sold were stuff that was redundant, not shown that often, or even just kept in storage. The Baltimore museum still has plenty of Warhols, Rauschenbergs and Klines up on the walls. But with the money from the sale, Bedford is looking to acquire art by people of color and women, going back to the 1940s

"I believe we as museums have not properly represented art history, as a consequence of conscious prejudice and unconscious prejudice," he says. "It's our job now to go back, and to begin to look at those artists who meet the criteria of excellence, but who have been written out, usually based on race or gender."

"To not do this is to kind of say we already know everything," says painter Meleko Mokgosi. "It's not representing the textures and experiences and lives of those people in their community." Mokgosi has an exhibition up at the Baltimore Museum of Art right now, that happens to be about representation of black people in art. "And the Baltimore Museum is saying no, that is not the case. We don't know everything, right? The things, the histories and the people and the cultures that are already dominant in the fine arts? That's not the whole story," he says

Museum director Christopher Bedford says the museum plans on announcing what pieces they're buying with this new money at the end of the month.

This story was edited for radio by Rose Friedman and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week, a painting by Kerry James Marshall sold for more than $21 million. It is believed to be the most ever paid for the work of a living black artist. The buyer was just revealed to be Sean Combs. It's the kind of work that more museums are trying to add to their collections. But these pieces cost money, as that happens. In the same auction were works by Andy Warhol and Franz Kline. We mention them because they were sold for exactly this reason - to fund acquisitions of art by women and artists of color. NPR's Andrew Limbong has more.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And that leads us to lot no. 22, property from the Baltimore Museum of Art...

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Let's start with the Warhol auction.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And I'll start the bidding of 2,200,000...

LIMBONG: This is from Sotheby's auction house in New York City where well-dressed people are making bids on Andy Warhol's "Oxidation Painting." It's a rust-colored splatter work made out of paint and urine. Bids go up until...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Lady's bid - and selling - at $2,800,000. Thank you, madam.

LIMBONG: When a museum sells off pieces from their collection, there's a fancy $10 term for it - deaccession. And to do it - well, here's Christopher Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

CHRISTOPHER BEDFORD: It's a very, very long, attenuated, moderately agonizing process to deaccession, and it should be.

LIMBONG: A museum selling art is a little different from, say, you selling your old iPhone for a better one. That's because when a museum obtains a piece of art, it's making a sort of compact between them and the public saying, I am buying this specifically so that you and other people in this community can come and see it. To sell is to sort of breach that compact. Museums often get in trouble for not deaccessioning the right way. For example, in Massachusetts recently, things got heated when the Berkshire Museum announced they'd be selling some pieces.

CAROL DIEHL: It's like your mother selling your heirlooms that you're supposed to get.

LIMBONG: That's Carol Diehl, a member of a campaign to save the art, talking to New England Public TV last month. The Berkshire's deaccessioning was opposed by the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors, groups that make the rules for this sort of thing. Those groups did, however, give their blessing to the Baltimore Museum of Art to sell pieces by Andy Warhol, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg and others. The idea is to make the collection better reflect the city, which is about 60 percent black.

BEDFORD: We're actually not saying, in any sense, that those white males that dominate American museum collections are an illegitimate part of history. They are absolutely a part of history.

LIMBONG: The pieces sold were stuff that was redundant, not shown that often or even just kept in storage. The Baltimore museum still has plenty of Warhol's, Rauschenberg's, Kline's up on the walls. But with the money from the sale, Bedford is looking to acquire art by people of color and women going back to the '40s.

BEDFORD: I believe that we as museums have not properly represented art history as a consequence of conscious prejudice and unconscious prejudice. And it's our job now to go back and to begin to look at those artists who meet the criteria of excellence but who have been written out for various different reasons usually based on race or gender.

MELEKO MOKGOSI: To not do this is to say that we already know everything. It's not representing the textures and experiences and lives of those people in that community.

LIMBONG: That's Meleko Mokgosi. He's a painter who's got an exhibition up at the Baltimore Museum of Art right now that happens to be about representation of black people in art.

MOKGOSI: And the Baltimore museum is saying, no, that is not the case. We don't know everything, right? The things - the histories and the people and the cultures that are already dominant in the fine arts, that's not the whole story.

LIMBONG: Baltimore Museum of Art Director Christopher Bedford says the museum plans on announcing what pieces they're buying with this new money at the end of the month. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

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