Baltimore Museum of Art curators respond to cession criticism
As scholars and curators of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), we feel compelled to respond to Martin Gammon recent opinion piece on the museum’s decision to sell works by Clyfford Still, Brice Marden and Andy Warhol. More specifically, we believe it is important to respond to its assessment for conservation reasons.
Gammon presents the situation as a battle between timeless aesthetic values and opportunism. But what underlies his argument, and so many others like his, is a fundamental misunderstanding – or rejection – of the vision, values, and fairness-based considerations that underpin our decision. It captures a blatant disregard for the rigorous re-imagining of the historical and institutional ethics of art that the BMA has undertaken in response to the just and timely demand that museums begin living their day-to-day missions, going beyond from simple rhetoric to measurable goals. actions with measurable consequences.
At first glance, Gammon’s argument is a critique of the curatorial rationale for the surrender, diagnosing a failure to recognize that these individual works of art are important. And yet, it is a fact that we do not dispute. On the contrary, as is the case historically, this assignment is not a judgment on individual works of art, but an evaluation of the context, how they work in a collection. Its editorial denies the possibility of categorical redundancy, as opposed to one-to-one monographic redundancy. This perspective is part of a constant and default recourse to consider only artists already anointed by market value.
Abstract Expressionism – an incredibly broad term disowned by most of its supposed members – is equated exclusively with the colloquial names of the Founding Fathers (artists represented in the BMA collection with great magnitude). In this context, one can wonder with disbelief how one can possibly deepen the narrative of the genre without Clyfford Still. But the multifaceted development of gestural painting among many artists — Willem de Kooning, Norman Lewis, Mark Tobey, Helen Frankenthaler, Ed Clark, Jack Whitten, Elizabeth Murray, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Mark Bradford, Amy Sillman — is at least as compelling as a standard origin story.
The BMA collection is increasingly able to put these artists in relationship with each other – relationships rich in challenges and responses, making gestural painting deeply alive as well as historic. These conservation decisions reflect the same values that we institutionally strive for: equity and diversity make history fairer, more precise and more meaningful in the present.
The other key precept of the context is proportion compared to the entire collection. Gammon’s book The cession and its discontents (MIT, 2018) reaffirms the unique role that alienation plays in the “creation of the world”, the chance for curators to articulate a clear vision of the collection. Based on three years of acquisitions (but also collections and loan exhibitions) focused on gender parity for black artists, and a year dedicated exclusively to women-identifying artists, we are working with a detailed roadmap for collection acquisitions and installations for the next year which has been carefully reviewed and also verified by curatorial staff.
For decades the late Warhol’s place in the collection was disproportionate, to the exclusion of many artists and many historical accounts. Every inch of wall space telegraphs the values of a museum – which we esteem and exclude – just as Gammon’s odd insistence on Botticelli’s validating precedent aims to assert a seemingly static Western artistic pantheon. There is a glaring blind spot around inequity in assessments of value and historical revision of Gammon; he has a touching faith in the ability of the market to faithfully and fairly reflect historical and aesthetic value, to ratify “the masterpiece”.
Gammon suggests a lack of transparency around financial criteria, and yet we have been completely open about the role of market value in the 2020 divestiture, as the museum was in 2018. More seriously, Gammon involves a turn of sleight of hand around the use of funds. Taking his so-called concern at face value, let’s set aside his dismissive language of qualifying the attempt to pay people a living wage as “consolidating some wage disparities”.
As stated by the management of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the endorsed and public definition of collection maintenance by the BMA and the intended use of funds are in line with current guidelines. It is because the museum is not in financial difficulty that it is able to take care of the collections and, rather than reducing the budget line at the bottom, to free up funds for the procedures necessary for the realization. of our fundamental mission: truly free entry to all exhibitions; provide evening hours; DAEI (diversity, accessibility, equity and inclusion) programs to restructure museum staff; and pay equity across the institution.
Gammon’s real disagreement with the BMA is about what a museum is and to whom he is accountable. The BMA believes that the museum’s mission is civic and that its dual responsibility is to create a fair internal structure and a fair and mutual relationship with the public, as expressed in the collection, exhibits, programming and overall engagement. . Too many critics routinely enlist a few white and privileged people tied to the status quo, but unsurprisingly fail to consider who does not speak. Such controversies completely ignore not only the general public in Baltimore, but also educators, colleagues and members of staff and committees of BMA, many of whom come from under-represented backgrounds.
These individuals have expressed their strong support for the surrender and the possibilities of new, multiple and meaningful narratives that resonate throughout Baltimore, as well as with art stories that are better documented, less received and more difficult to gain. Museums are not mausoleums or treasures, they are living organisms, turned to the present as well as to the past, and this is where the fundamental disagreement lies.
• Asma Naeem is Chief Curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Katy Siegel is Senior Curator for Research and Programming at the Baltimore Museum of Art and Professor at Stony Brook University.