In a move described as an effort to reflect the city’s predominantly black community, the Baltimore Museum of Art is selling works by white men, including Andy Warhol, to make room for paintings and other pieces by black and female artists.
The effort veers significantly from the more typical practice by museums of selling artwork to finance buying pieces that are more valuable, conceded the museum’s director, Christopher Bedford.
The chief goal by the museum is clearly to diversify its collection, Bedford said in a statement released last month after the Board of Trustees approved the plan.
“The BMA, like any civic museum, must undergo a continuous process of reviewing its collection and identifying areas for growth and refinement with the goal of building a collection that is more relevant to the community it serves,” said Bedford. “The sale of these works, identified by our curators after a very thorough process, will allow us to do just that, and strengthen our collection of contemporary art.”
Later, he told ArtNet that the museum was making a concerted effort to be multicultural, and wanted to “state it explicitly and act on it with discipline—there is no question that is an unusual and radical act to take.”
It is the latest in a recent trend among museums in response to criticism that they are too Euro-centric, both in their collections and the people they employ.
Last year New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out a plan to tie funding for museums and non-profit arts organizations to the number of diverse employes and board members.
“This will be a factor in funding decisions by the city going forward,” de Blasio said. “We do this because we believe in fairness.”
The Speed Art Museum in Kentucky actually started using a spreadsheet to see in which areas the institution was too white or too male.
The so-called “board matrix” breaks down departments and boards into race, age, gender and specialty, according to published reports.
Patrick Potter, a member of the museum’s board, balked at the notion that a quota was being applied to the initiative, preferring to call it “a function-tracking mechanism, not a quota,” according to The New York Times.
Museum officials note that the institution still will have plenty of other, even better, works by Warhol and Franz Kline.
But critics of moves such as those of the Baltimore Museum of Art see the whole plan as tokenism, and a politicization of art.
“I’m very concerned about the precedent they’re setting,” said James Panero, executive editor of The New Criterion, a conservative art journal based in New York. “They’re trying to racialize a topic (art) that is meant to be and should be universal and doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment.”
“Those works speak to everybody,” Panero told Fox News, adding that he holds such views even while not being a fan of Warhol’s, and being an admirer of Mark Bradford, an African American contemporary artist whose work the museum intends to acquire. A Bradford painting, Helter Skelter, recently sold in Los Angeles for $12 million.
Panero said that the museum’s move to add works by minorities and women in an outreach effort is to a degree condescending to the very people it aims to impress.
“It’s insulting to the people of Baltimore to say ‘You can’t relate to this artwork because the artist is white,’” Panero said, “that they would not be able to relate to it the way that I can because of their race or gender.”
Panero stressed that setting out to interest a wider audience in going to museums is a noble objective, but that there are other, less politically-charged ways to do it. He is skeptical that simply expanding the number of works by minority and female artists will bring more minorities and women through the museums doors.
The Baltimore museum trustees approved the acquisition of works by Bradford, Zanele Muholi, Trevor Paglen, John T. Scott, Sara VanDerBeek, and Jack Whitten. Paglen and VanDerBeek are white.