Should UK museums be more radical about diversifying collections? - Museums Association

Should UK museums be more radical about diversifying collections?

Debate sparked after US museum sells existing works to fund more diverse acquisitions
A debate has sprung up among museum professionals over the decision by the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) to deaccession artworks by white male artists and use the funds raised to acquire more art by women and people of colour.

The museum announced last month that it had identified “areas of repetition” in its collection and had marked seven works for disposal, including pieces by Franz Kline, Kenneth Noland and Andy Warhol.

It said that the funds raised through deaccessioning would be used exclusively for the acquisition of contemporary art created from 1943 onwards. The museum has identified nine pieces it wishes to acquire, including work by the South African artist Zanele Muhioli, the African American sculptor Jack Whitten and the Baltimore artist Sara VanDerBeek.

The museum’s director Christopher Bedford said: “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.”

Culture professionals in the US largely welcomed the decision. “Why wouldn’t you sell off redundant works, deemed to be lesser in value than similar works in the museum holdings, in order to buy others by underrepresented contemporary artists?” wrote the Baltimore artist Cara Ober in an essay on the subject last week.

Ober’s essay also quoted fellow Baltimore-based sculptor, Shinique Smith, who said: “In terms of growing up in the art world, I had to do extra research beyond the museum to find artists of colour. This move is a correction and, for the demographics in Baltimore, it makes sense.”

Ober quotes the curator and art historian Leslie King Hammond as saying: ““You have to be bold, be a visionary. You have to step forward and make what are sometimes misconstrued as radical decisions, when in fact it’s just addressing the overall quality, content, and intent of the institution’s role in community.”

But the move provoked controversy in other quarters. The host of the Modern Art Notes Podcast, Tyler Green, tweeted: “I’d like to know where in [American Alliance of Museums] guidelines it says that deaccessioning motivated by gender is a best or even sanctioned practice.”

An editorial in the Baltimore Sun described the use of deaccessioning as "a violation that goes right to the heart, trust and credibility of a museum’s mission".

Across the pond, a comment piece in the Guardian asked if UK museums and galleries should be taking similarly radical action, pointing out that just 35% of works held by Tate are by female artists and the statistics are even worse for black, Asian and minority ethnic artists.

Acknowledging that attitudes are different and the rules around deaccessioning more stringent in the UK, the article highlighted the more discerning collecting policies of institutions like the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, which is working to diversify its collection through acquisitions and long-term loans.

While a Baltimore-style deaccessioning may not be the answer in the UK, should museums and galleries here be more radical in their thinking on how to make their collections more diverse? Vote in our poll to have your say and tell us your suggestions in the comment box below.

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