Baltimore Sun

Art lovers ask AG to block sale of 3 works

Let­ter crit­i­cizes BMA process

- By Mary Ca­role McCauley Arts · Museums · Maryland · Baltimore · Andy Warhol · Sotheby's Auction House · Brice Marden · Konstanz · Christie's · United States of America · Washington · Brian E. Frosh · Clyfford Still · Marden

Nearly two dozen art lovers are ask­ing top Mary­land of­fi­cials to block the Bal­ti­more Mu­seum of Art’s pro­posed sale of three iconic and ar­guably ir­re­place­able art­works. They warn that Andy Warhol’s “The Last Sup­per” is at risk of be­ing dis­posed of “at a bar­gain­base­ment price.”

The let­ter was sent Wed­nes­day night to Mary­land At­tor­ney Gen­eral Brian E. Frosh and Mary­land Sec­re­tary of State John C. Woben­smith. It cites anom­alies rang­ing from an al­leged con­flict of in­ter­est to the ap­par­ent lack of a com­pet­i­tive bid­ding process in choos­ing Sotheby’s Auc­tion House to han­dle the sale.

In re­sponse, the BMA said it has bro­ken no laws and vi­o­lated no ethics codes in the “deac­ces­sion­ing,” a mu­seum’s de­ci­sion to re­move art­works from its per­ma­nent col­lec­tion and put them up for sale.

The let­ter is protest­ing the Oct. 1 vote by the mu­seum’s board of trus­tees to sell the three works to fund di­ver­sity ini­tia­tives, in­clud­ing staff salary in­creases.

The let­ter asks the of­fi­cials to halt the planned pri­vate sale of the Warhol paint­ing as well as the Oct. 28 auc­tion of Clyf­ford Still’s “1957-G” and Brice Mar­den’s “3.”

“There were ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties and po­ten­tial con­flicts of in­ter­est in the sales agree­ment with Sotheby’s and the process by which staff ap­proved the deac­ces­sion­ing,” the let­ter says. “There are im­por­tant ques­tions re­gard­ing whether the BMA has breached the pub­lic

trust.”

Lead­ing the list of sig­na­tures were the names of Lau­rence J. Eisen­stein, a for­mer BMA trustee and chair of the mu­seum’s con­tem­po­rary ac­qui­si­tions com­mit­tee and Con­stance Ca­plan, for­mer BMA board chair­woman.

Raquel Coombs, a spokes­woman for Frosh, said: “We typ­i­cally don’t com­ment on com­plaints to our of­fice or ac­tions we may or may not take in re­sponse to com­plaints.” Woben­smith did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Be­cause mu­se­ums tra­di­tion­ally act as stew­ards for cul­tural trea­sures held on be­half of the pub­lic, de­ci­sions made by these in­sti­tu­tions are over­seen by state at­tor­neys gen­eral. The let­ter points out that the BMA has re­ceived sig­nif­i­cant funds from state tax­pay­ers, in­clud­ing $11.2 mil­lion to­ward a mul­ti­year $28 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion that wrapped up in 2015. If Frosh were to con­clude that the BMA’s board of trus­tees had acted il­le­gally, he could seek to block the sale by fil­ing a law­suit and ask­ing a judge for an in­junc­tion.

When the sale was an­nounced ear­lier this month, mu­seum di­rec­tor Christo­pher Bed­ford said the three pieces were ex­pected to fetch around $65 mil­lion.

But the let­ter claims that “The Last

Sup­per” alone could have been auc­tioned for that amount — if the BMA had en­gaged in a com­pet­i­tive bid­ding process. The BMA re­ceived a guar­an­teed min­i­mum price of $40 mil­lion for the mon­u­men­tal Warhol, the let­ter claims. It de­scribes the paint­ing as “a peren­nial fa­vorite of BMA vis­i­tors” and “the most im­por­tant work” in the BMA’s col­lec­tion by the Pop artist.

Warhol made mul­ti­ple paint­ings of “The Last Sup­per.” In No­vem­ber, 2017, a com­pa­ra­bly sized ver­sion was sold for al­most $61 mil­lion by Christie’s Auc­tion House, ac­cord­ing to the auc­tion­eer’s web­site.

“This sig­nif­i­cant dis­par­ity in price is ex­tremely trou­bling,” the let­ter says, “and leads one to con­clude ... that the BMA did not suf­fi­ciently ex­er­cise its fidu­ciary duty in val­u­a­tion of the work and in seek­ing to max­i­mize the sale pro­ceeds.”

In ad­di­tion, the BMA plans to auc­tion off the only art­work it owns by Still, who lived near West­min­ster be­tween 1961 and 1980.

“Be­cause Still’s paint­ings have price tags that run in the tens of mil­lions,” the let­ter says, “one can say with al­most 100% cer­tainty that if the BMA deac­ces­sions its sin­gle piece by the artist, the mu­seum will never again rep­re­sent the work of this ma­jor Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ist who lived in the state of Mary­land.”

The BMA’s state­ment is silent as to whether it en­gaged in a com­pet­i­tive bid­ding process. It said only that “the BMA has worked with Sotheby’s on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions, as have in­sti­tu­tions across the United States, to great success.”

The pro­posed sale is just the most re­cent in a se­ries of sweep­ing changes that Bed­ford has in­sti­tuted since be­com­ing the BMA’s di­rec­tor in 2016. He is at­tempt­ing to make the mu­seum more wel­com­ing and ac­ces­si­ble to a di­verse au­di­ence and artists.

Pro­ceeds from sell­ing the pieces by Warhol, Still and Mar­den would cre­ate a $54.5 mil­lion en­dow­ment for the care of the col­lec­tion. In­ter­est from that en­dow­ment to­tal­ing roughly $2.5 mil­lion an­nu­ally would be used to in­crease staff salaries, elim­i­nate ad­mis­sion fees for spe­cial exhibition­s and of­fer even­ing hours. In ad­di­tion, $10 mil­lion would be set aside to ac­quire more works cre­ated by women and artists of color.

Some of Bed­ford’s pre­vi­ous de­ci­sions have been con­tro­ver­sial, in­clud­ing a 2018 auc­tion of seven art­works for $16.2 mil­lion that in­cluded two less sig­nif­i­cant Warhol paint­ings. Though the let­ter never names Bed­ford — it refers to him only as the mu­seum’s di­rec­tor — it rep­re­sents the first sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic crit­i­cisms of his man­age­ment style.

The let­ter claims that the mu­seum en­gaged in an eth­i­cal in­fringe­ment by ask­ing cu­ra­tors to vote for a sale that would in­crease their own salaries. The let­ter says the cu­ra­tors’ unan­i­mous rec­om­men­da­tion was a key fac­tor in se­cur­ing ap­proval for the sale from some board mem­bers.

“The Di­rec­tor of the BMA placed the cu­ra­to­rial staff in an un­ten­able po­si­tion where they could not avoid the ap­pear­ance of a con­flict of in­ter­est as they could di­rectly ben­e­fit from the sale of the works,” the let­ter said.

In its state­ment, the BMA called the con­flict of in­ter­est al­le­ga­tions “un­founded,” adding that spe­cific pay raises have been iden­ti­fied only for the se­cu­rity guards who now are paid $13.50 an hour and other low-paid staff mem­bers who­did not vote on the po­ten­tial sale. “Mem­bers of HR [Hu­man Re­sources] and se­nior lead­er­ship are work­ing to map out ad­di­tional po­si­tions in need of pay in­creases in or­der to achieve eq­ui­table com­pen­sa­tion across the in­sti­tu­tion,” the state­ment said. “More­over, key se­nior cu­ra­to­rial po­si­tions at the BMA are en­dowed, mak­ing these po­si­tions min­i­mally im­pacted by any changes in salaries over­all.”

The let­ter states that it “strongly sup­ports” the mu­seum’s goals of in­creas­ing di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion. But it says the funds to sup­port the new ac­qui­si­tions and di­ver­sity pro­grams could have been achieved with stan­dard fundrais­ing prac­tices.

“We hope that the Board will re­verse its de­ci­sion to deac­ces­sion these works while there is still time to do so,” wrote Eisen­stein, a Wash­ing­ton at­tor­ney, in an email.

“If the sale of these iconic art­works is fi­nal­ized, Mary­land will lose a sig­nif­i­cant part of its cul­tural her­itage.”

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