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Uproar Follows Museum's Plan To Make Changes Regarding Diversity, Equity


The Baltimore Museum of Art started a controversy in the art world. It announced a plan to sell three pieces of work, including a large Andy Warhol. It was part of a plan to fundamentally change how the museum operates when it comes to diversity and equity. But the plan caused such an uproar, it was canceled at the last minute. NPR's Andrew Limbong explains.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: The golden rule of the museum world is you're only supposed to sell works of art to buy other works of art. The goal is to prevent pieces deemed important to the public from being used as big bags of money. But earlier this year, the Association of Art Museum Directors relaxed its guidelines a bit so that museums struggling with pandemic-related revenue losses could sell pieces to stay afloat. Baltimore Museum of Art director Chris Bedford saw an opportunity.

CHRIS BEDFORD: I did begin to think about this question of truly systemic change.

LIMBONG: Think back to this summer, how seemingly every brand and company and workplace was trying to respond to the massive George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests. Bedford was watching what was going on in the museum world, where people outside and inside the world were pointing out inconsistencies between the statements museums were making and how they've actually operated. So he wanted a massive shift, not just in programming but in policy.

BEDFORD: It becomes less about what painting we buy and more about what painting we buy in combination with the people that we hire, how we compensate them, how equitable we are as an institution, how accessible we are to the broadest demographic.

LIMBONG: His idea was to sell enough works of art to create an endowment in order to do stuff like end paid exhibitions, extend hours and raise pay for staff, including curators and security guards, and to buy more works of art from artists of color. Bedford isn't a stranger to the deaccession debate. In 2018, the BMA sold seven works of art to buy pieces by women and artists of color. And that was OK with most people, but the reaction this time far exceeded his expectations. Dissenters wrote a letter to the Maryland attorney general to try and stop the sale. Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote a column decrying it, using the words sleaze and scammer. The AAMD board, which was at first cool with the sale, eventually issued a statement condemning it. And just hours before the sale was supposed to start, it was canceled.

BETSY BRADLEY: Well, I think there are a few sacred cows in the art museum business, and the acquisitions and collections process is one of those sacred cows.

LIMBONG: Betsy Bradley is the director of the Mississippi Museum of Art and a member of the AAMD.

BRADLEY: Change to those processes is really, I think, the change that feels most threatening to art museums because it's so critical to the core of our missions.

LIMBONG: Bradley has been overseeing similar changes at her own museum that would cover collection, staffing, resource development with an eye towards equity. It's a long and arduous process that takes time. But Morgan State University art history professor Lori Johnson says the need for these shifts is immediate.

LORI JOHNSON: To me, there's nothing more heartbreaking than seeing an artist who truly was gifted and having them have their first retrospective at a museum in their 70s.

LIMBONG: She points to Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis as examples. Johnson was part of the committee that the Baltimore Museum of Art used to decide which works to sell. She says that for decades, museums have gotten away with doing one or two shows here and there to keep women and people of color happy.

JOHNSON: But we should be beyond that now. You know, this is 2020. We're on the cusp of the first woman of color as our vice president. The world has changed dramatically.

LIMBONG: And she says museums have to do the same. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANATOLE'S "MEDLOW BATH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
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