Artistic License: In a Statement-Making Move, the Baltimore Museum of Art Makes a Commitment to Women Artists in 2020

Photo: Stephen Jaffe (AFP via Getty Images)

Where are women in the art world consistently celebrated? In 2020, it will be at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has announced that next year it will only be adding artwork created by women to its permanent collection. In fact, the museum, which is currently hosting the exhibit “Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art” through January 15, 2020, has gone so far as to sell off seven works of art by well-known male artists (including Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg) in order to purchase works by women and ethnic minorities (or both). Of note: prior to the controversial move, only 4 percent of the museum’s 95,000-piece permanent collection was created by women artists, reports the Baltimore Sun. Recent acquisitions include a work by Michelle Obama’s portraitist, Amy Sherald.

“To rectify centuries of imbalance, you have to do something radical,” Christopher Bedford, BMA director, told the Sun, which also reports the museum plans to spend up to $2 million next year in acquisition of female-created artwork, and that either via purchase or donation, “each of the 22 exhibits on view at the museum will have a female focus,” including work by transgender artist Zackary Drucker.

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It’s an unprecedented move to address gender inequality in the art world, but not everyone’s a fan of the 105-year-old museum’s strategy. An April op-ed by David Maril, the son of a now-deceased BMA artist-trustee, lauded the move toward more diversity but lambasted the museum’s decision to sell some of its most prized works, pointing to a potential lack of relevance and funding, writing:

[T]he use of deaccession—selling seven paintings to achieve this goal of supporting local and regional contemporary art—is a horrendous decision...The truth is that deaccession, even with the approval of the American Alliance of Museums, is considered a dirty word in the art world. The process, always surrounded by controversy and public criticism, is usually a last resort effort by an institution on the verge of bankruptcy, seeking desperately to raise cash to keep its doors open. The use of deaccession is a violation that goes right to the heart, trust and credibility of a museum’s mission and obligation to preserve and protect art history.

Deaccession is a slap in the face to donors who gave artwork that has been accepted into the collection. One has to wonder, as the news spreads of the museum selling paintings by modern masters such as Franz Kline, Robert Raushenberg and Kenneth Noland, how many collectors will eliminate the BMA from consideration in donating art. Yes, in this particular instance, it’s true the BMA retains other paintings by these artists. But wouldn’t you think it should savor and treasure as many examples of the work of such modern masters as possible?

But it seems the shock value is exactly the point—and perhaps exactly what the art world needs in order to recognize that all of its so-called “masters” of the craft aren’t all white men. While it’s a major risk, the move is being lauded by no less than the National Association of Women Artists.

“We think all museums should do it. It’s particularly important that the BMA is creating a platform for woman artists to showcase their work, because that will inspire other women to make art,” said Biana Kovic, incoming executive director of NAWA. “Even today, female artists are highly underrepresented in museums. We have a lot of work still to do about educating the public on the importance of women in American art history.”

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It may only be one museum in one major city, but hopes are that however radical, the move will bring awareness to the centuries of sexism hanging on the walls of some of our most acclaimed spaces.

“This how you raise awareness and shift the identity of an institution,” said Bedford.

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Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.