The Baltimore museum of art. Jon Bilous/shutterstock
The Baltimore museum of art. Jon Bilous/shutterstock

Recent developments out of Baltimore serve as a stark reminder that funders may not always see eye to eye with the plans of museum leadership to boost diversity and inclusion—especially if the plan calls for selling off valuable artwork.

In April, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AARD) temporarily relaxed its rules around how beleaguered institutions could use proceeds from artwork sales. Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) Director Christopher Bedford saw an opportunity. “A light bulb went off inside my head during the lockdown,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “I realized that it’s impossible to stand behind a diversity, justice and inclusion agenda as an art museum unless you’re living those ideals within your own walls.”

He devised a plan for the museum to raise $65 million by selling three artworks, including Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper.” The BMA would allocate $10 million in proceeds to purchase work by women and artists of color, with the remaining $54.5 million seeding the “Endowment for the Future” for the care of the collection. The museum would use the interest on the endowment to do away with ticketed exhibitions, open the museum one night a week and increase staff salaries.

The board overwhelmingly approved the initiative on October 1, setting off a wave of protest from art critics, historians and museum professionals. “Who’s going to give the Baltimore Museum of Art their prized painting or sculpture if they’re afraid that maybe in 20 years, the museum is going to dump it for some pet project?” asked Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Knight.

On October 23, former board chairman Charles Newhall III announced that he and another former chairman, Stiles Colwill, were rescinding verbal pledges of $30 million and $20 million, respectively, and warned other donors would follow suit. Four days later, the AAMD backed away from its support for the sale. Undeterred, the museum said it would proceed with the auction on October 28.

However, two hours before the gavel fell, trustees “paused” the auction. “The decision was made after having heard and listened to the proponents and the detractors of the BMA’s ambitious Endowment for the Future and after a private conversation between the BMA’s leadership and the AAMD,” read the museum’s October 28 statement to Inside Philanthropy.

The pandemic and calls for social justice, to quote the Ford Foundation, demand “interpretation and action” among the country’s cultural institutions. But the following takeaways from the BMA controversy suggest that translating interpretation into action can be far more difficult than it looks.

1. It takes two to tango

“For far too long, museums have made superficial efforts in enacting change,” read a BMA statement to Inside Philanthropy. “We have used exhibitions and programs to support the idea that we are diverse and inclusive. We are not. We have said change is important, but we have not taken the steps to enact it.”

As we’ll see, institutional funders like Ford are doing their part to facilitate meaningful change. But without robust support from the lifeblood of museum fundraising—mega-donors who, as Apollo magazine’s Glenn Adamson noted, are “predominantly white men”—directors like Bedford can only do so much.

A small handful of repeat donors tend to drive the “revenue engine for museums, not the annual fund, direct mail, crowdfunding or small gifts,” according to Sotheby’s. Fundraisers rely on the 80/20 rule, which stipulates that 80% of gifts usually come from 20% of donors, many of whom prefer expensive capital projects.

In an email to the Washington Post, BMA board of trustees chairwoman Clair Zamoiski Segal corroborated this reality, writing, “The majority of donors would rather give to more high-profile projects or initiatives and the board itself is not an endless fount. If fundraising for salaries was easy, more museums would be paying better wages.”

Newhall and Colwill made their commitments as part of a particularly high-profile project, BMA’s “In a New Light” campaign. The campaign, which was tied to the museum’s 100th anniversary in 2014, sought to raise $28 million for capital renovations and $30 million for the endowment. The campaign is in the process of raising $6.3 million to complete the capital renovation; Newhall is still listed as the campaign’s chair.

2. Going big has its limits

Bedford has been pushing for greater diversity at the BMA since being appointed director four years ago. In 2018, the BMA deaccessioned $16.2 million in works by white male artists to fund the acquisition of 23 new works by underrepresented artists. A year later, the BMA announced it would buy work by women artists exclusively throughout 2020 in order to “rectify centuries of imbalance.”

When the AAMD unexpectedly announced it was relaxing its guidelines in late April, Bedford, encouraged by the museum’s previous foray into deaccessioning, decided to go big. “This is done specifically in recognition of the protest being led by museum staff to be paid an equitable living wage to perform core work for an institution with a social justice mission,” he said in early October.

However, an October 27 statement from AAMD President Brent Benjamin said the association’s resolutions “were explicitly intended to assist museums facing a financial crisis due to the impacts of the pandemic.”

BMA faced no such crisis. It has a balanced budget and did not lay off or furlough staff during the pandemic. On October 28, 14 past directors of the association sent a letter to Segal stating that “the funds for … long-term needs—or ambitious goals … must not come from the sale of deaccessioned art” and urged the BMA to “reconsider its planned sale of artworks.” In contrast, on October 25, the Brooklyn Museum, which laid off 7% of its staff since the start of the pandemic, raised $20 million by auctioning seven works without a hitch.

While the AAMD lacks regulatory authority over museums, officials “take the association’s directives seriously,” wrote the Baltimore Sun’s Mary Carole McCauley. “To do otherwise risks sanctions and a public shaming of an institution.”

3. For donors, the ends don’t justify the means

No donor, art critic or AAMD representative went on the record objecting to Bedford’s goal of boosting inclusion or providing staff with living wages. Rather, their problem was with Bedford’s leadership and his method for drumming up funding.

On October 24, Colwill, who rescinded a $20 million gift and resigned as an honorary trustee during the BMA’s October 1 virtual meeting, told the Art Newspaper that “just over a year ago, I quietly changed my estate plans when it became clear to me that under the leadership of Christopher Bedford, the BMA was no longer trustworthy to receive this bequest. It was only in the past weeks that I was, quite sadly, publicly proven right about the BMA’s current leadership.”

Newhall wants “any public display” of his family’s $5 million in previous gifts to be removed from the museum. “I feel that by leaving my name associated with the museum, I’m tactically supporting the new direction,” he said. “I do not agree with Chris Bedford’s vision of rewriting the canon of art history by rectifying the wrongs of the past. I certainly do not believe that one sells masterpieces to fund diversity.”

Sherry Christhilf, a former member of the accessions committee and longtime supporter of the museum, said, “I support the idea of what Christopher Bedford is trying to do. I don’t support the way he’s doing it. It’s a sad way, and an easy way. It’s easy to take the good stuff and sell it to make money.”

And Laurence Eisenstein, a BMA donor and former trustee who led the opposition to the deaccessioning plan, said the plan’s critics agree with promoting diversity and pay equity but are opposed to “taking what seems to be a shortcut approach to monetize the art instead of doing the more difficult work of fundraising and development.”

Time will tell if donors provide the kind of support that aligns with Bedford’s goals through the conventional machinations of fundraising and development. Lori Johnson, a professor of art history at Morgan State University in Baltimore, is dubious. “Saying we could raise funds through traditional means is basically how we’ve arrived at the place we are now—we still have underrepresentation and still have people waiting to have the careers they deserve,” she said.

4. Beware of verbal pledges

The saga also underscores the perils of verbal pledges. In an email to the Washington Post, Segal said, “While we appreciate that Charles Newhall is expressing that he had intended on making such a pledge, this was not negotiated or recorded with the museum.”

If Segal is correct, Newhall’s threat to revoke the pledge, in theory, shouldn’t have factored into trustees’ decision to halt the auction.

Newhall, who also resigned as an honorary trustee, disputed Segal’s account. “We never put anything in writing, but I ran that campaign for five years. I’m sure it’s in the minutes of the various board meetings,” he said. “That’s what they are doing about everything. They are denying everything. They lie.”

5. Fights with donors can go either way

This isn’t the first time funders haven’t agreed with an outside-the-box strategy by museum leadership. Back in March, the Ahmanson Foundation suspended its decades-long program of buying art for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) out of concerns that the museum’s renovation plan, which called for a new rotating exhibition model and the demolition of the Ahmanson Building, would relegate its work to storage crates.

In Baltimore, museum trustees backed down in an atmosphere of distrust and acrimony. “We believed we would finally have the resources to create lasting and really necessary change,” said Trustee Amy Elias after the BMA halted the auction. “What I found disappointing was the intensity of feelings around the sale and the way that people expressed them. This has been a divisive conversation. It is not something our community should be proud of.”

Out west, LACMA’s plan carried the day. In September, the former Ahmanson Building was reduced to rubble, while earlier this year, W.M. Keck Foundation made a $50 million pledge just as Director Michael Govan quietly upped the project’s fundraising goal from $650 million to $750 million. But the museum isn’t out of the woods just yet. Community activist Greg Goldin has pegged LACMA’s real price tag somewhere between $825 million and $1 billion.

Now what?

In July, I checked in with sector funding reps and asked them how philanthropy could support a more equitable visual arts sector. Respondents universally called for a bottom-up approach focused on local organizations and small museums. Major institutions weren’t part of the mix.

“Rather than funding toward large museum renovations, philanthropy should provide “more direct funding to neighborhood-based cultural anchors that serve a lot of social purposes all at once,” said A Blade of Grass Program Director Prerana Reddy.

Margaret Morton, the director of the Creativity and Free Expression team at the Ford Foundation, encouraged funders to support institutions serving diverse communities, like Seattle’s Wing Lake Museum, which focuses on the culture, art and history of Asian Pacific Americans. A few months later, Ford announced a $156 million-and-counting initiative called America’s Cultural Treasures, focused on helping arts organizations led by and serving BIPOC arts groups. Recipients included the Arab American National Museum and the Japanese American National Museum.

Pre-2020, arts funders often provided support to wealthy “legacy” institutions that would then partner with organizations serving diverse communities to roll out inclusive programming. Now, they’re cutting out the middleman entirely, by putting money directly in the hands of local organizations and historically undercapitalized museums.

If this trend holds—and we have every reason to suspect it will—where does this leave institutions addressing structural inequities and racism that have endured the pandemic and whose mega-donors prefer what BMA’s Segal called “high-profile projects?” Bedford has clearly been grappling with this question for quite some time, which explains why his plan pushed the boundaries of the BMA’s fundraising model.

After trustees halted the auction, Bedford acknowledged “the importance of adhering to the professional guidelines that govern our field.” He also said that “the moment has come to more deeply consider the standards by which museums operate. The turmoil we are experiencing is not simply financial; it is the result of entrenched systems that cannot sustain the moment or the future. Our communities are calling us to action, to move beyond words and symbols.”