Five months after his plan derailed, Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), issued a resounding defense of his thwarted initiative to sell three major post-war works of art to advance diversity. and equity in its institution. Arguing that “the most important thing a museum can nurture is in fact not its collection but rather its community”, he calls for an aggressive consideration of systemic biases in art institutions “in all categories. , using all means ”.
“Museums are community resources,” Bedford said in a keynote address Friday at a virtual conference hosted by Syracuse University on the transfer or sale of works from a museum’s permanent collection. “These are not membership clubs. To reach and serve all communities, not just those in historically established privileged spaces, it is imperative for the present to take into account the inequalities of the past and the institutional systems that maintain these inequalities.
Traditionally, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), a watchdog group, has limited its members to using the proceeds of the transfer only to purchase more art. But in a palliative measure last April to help museums cope with financial deficits linked to the coronavirus pandemic, the association decided to relax its rules for two years, allowing them to use the income from sales of art to cover expenses related to the direct care of collections such as curators’ and curator’s salaries.
The move has torn the museum world apart, with some saying the move puts institutions on a slippery slope towards using their collection as fungible assets that can be sold to pay for expenses such as roof repairs. The range of views was fully on display at the conference, where museum directors, curators, lawyers, academics and artists debated the definition of ‘direct care’, efforts to address under-representation. women artists and artists of color in museum collections, legal strategies to defend cession decisions and the vulnerability of universities or other museums whose parent institutions might choose to treat the collections as an asset that can be sold to fund operations basic.
In a session on the definition of direct care, Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, launched a vigorous defense of the institution’s ongoing sales – around $ 35 million raised so far – to fund the care of the collections. “We should be more than static repositories for art,” she said. “It’s unrealistic to accumulate endlessly.” At the same time, she warned that even if museums “re-examine their values”, she does not support the use of the proceeds of the divestiture to cover basic operating costs.
Bedford has remained a kind of lightning rod for more permissive policies on art sales since last October, when he announced his intention to sell three top-notch post-war works by Andy Warhol, Clyfford Still and Brice. Marden. His hope was to raise $ 65 million to fund goals such as increasing staff salaries, the top priority; the acquisition of post-war works by men and women of color; offer free entry to special exhibitions; allow the museum to remain open until 9 p.m. on one working day per week; and the creation of a plan to defend racial and gender equity at the museum.
Sales were called off in the 11th hour after AAMD raised concerns about the broad nature of the museum’s goals. “While we have chosen not to sell the three paintings in question in order to remain in compliance with the AAMD guidelines,” said Bedford, “I do not concede that these guidelines must remain unchallenged and undisputed as the best standards. possible to advance the cause of museums in the 21st century.
“The history of art itself is a story of recognition and rupture,” he said. “I mean by that, we value artists who recognize everything that came before them and dig a hole in that story to create a new space for themselves. The future we imagine for museums will not be reached with the necessary urgency if we move forward at the laborious pace dictated by unchallenged habits.
Bedford argued for “radical change” to meet “just demands,” including fair compensation and inclusive leadership and accountability. “As museums announce their commitments to diversity, equity, access and inclusion,” he said, “we also need to take a close look at the ways in which we continue to fall short of these goals. “.
He noted that Baltimore’s population is 64% black. “In 2016, when I arrived at the museum” as director, “our audience was 72% white. Our permanent collection is made up of 96% men. In our 107-year history, there has never been a black chairman of our board of directors. When I arrived at the BMA, there was not a single color curator. Until 2017, he added, there were no people of color in the museum’s management team.
Bedford said that while progress has been made in these categories, “that’s not the point here. It is about taking into account the systemic nature of the prejudices of our history as the basis for action starting now in all categories, using all means. “
Changing the white male dominated collection will involve a “pure addition methodology,” he warned. “For an account that’s not just fair but true, you can’t just hook up a few black performers from the past 10 years. We have to rewrite the whole story.
The collection, he concluded, should not be sacrosanct. “Like the museum as a whole, it is very white-centric and it is a repository of extraordinary value. In fact, it is the most literal manifestation of the systems of prejudice and privilege upon which Western museums have been built. It is not enough to look everywhere but in the collection to identify a means of repair.
Bedford noted that the museum sold seven works from its collection in 2018 to raise $ 16.2 million to support the acquisition of works by female artists and artists of color. Since then, it has filled the “glaring gaps” in its collection by acquiring 95 works by 82 artists, he says.
Later, the Director of the BMA participated in a panel on “Making the Case for Change – or Not” with Glenn Lowry, Director of the Museum of Modern Art; Thomas Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Linda Harrison, director and general manager of the Newark Museum of Art; and Tracey Riese, administrator and chair of the Brooklyn Museum collections committee.
Campbell, who said relaxing AAMD’s rules on art sales could open the floodgates for monetization of collections, warned of a loss of trust among donors. If museums are allowed to use the proceeds from the sale of works of art for the maintenance of collections, he also said, “it will take the pressure off the boards of directors. [of trustees] to do their job ”to secure the financial future of the arts institutions they oversee.
He cautioned against a “false dichotomy” between focusing attention on a museum’s permanent collection and expanding and diversifying its audience. “I think the two go hand in hand,” he said. And he stressed that he sees the divestiture as an important tool for raising funds to diversify collections, as opposed to funding direct care.
Lowry, who argued museums have far too many works in stock, said he was nonetheless uncomfortable using the divestiture to fund pay equity, as the BMA argues. “This doesn’t mean that in the context of the mission Baltimore sets for itself, it could potentially be a viable use – not in our current context, but after debate and change,” he said. He added that he could more easily consider the possibility of the profits going to educational initiatives of museums. He also raised the idea that income from art sales could go into an endowment that could support a range of goals in addition to art acquisitions.
But for now, he said, institutions are too overwhelmed by the pandemic and declining revenues to develop a cohesive common strategy on the divestiture. “You can’t have a good conversation in the middle of a crisis,” he said. “We are all in this pandemic, we are all in shock. There is not a single one of our institutions that has not suffered.
In a division’s reflection on AAMD’s divestiture guidelines, association members voted 91-88 this month against asking its directors to explore a permanent change in its divestiture policy. transfer which would extend the current authorization to sell art to finance the direct care of the collections.