Former board chairman Charles Newhall III said Friday that he and another former chairman, Stiles Colwill, made verbal pledges of $30 million and $20 million, respectively, in planned gifts to the “In a New Light” campaign that was tied to the museum’s 100th anniversary in 2014. They have publicly rescinded those promises because of the museum’s intention to sell the three artworks, which include Warhol’s “The Last Supper.”
Other donors Newhall has spoken to are considering canceling gifts, too, he said, while Colwill warned that the museum may lose out on gifts of art from local collectors.
However, Clair Zamoiski Segal, chairwoman of the board of trustees, said in an email that the museum has no record of a $50 million pledge or any pledges totaling that amount.
“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,” Segal wrote.
Newhall rejected Segal’s statement and characterized it as part of a pattern. “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.”
The canceled donations are the latest evidence of growing opposition to the proposed deaccessioning that the board approved earlier this month. Museum officials plan to auction Still’s “1957-G” and Marden’s “3” on Wednesday night at Sotheby’s. A private sale of the Warhol work is said to be imminent.
The BMA intends to spend $10 million to acquire art made by women and artists of color and $1 million for equity programs. It will place the balance — an estimated $54 million — in an endowment that will yield $2 million to $2.5 million annually for the museum’s work to improve equity, diversity and inclusion. Director Christopher Bedford said the museum had “a moral imperative” to undertake a bold plan to address systemic racism and injustice.
The controversy highlights the complexity of deaccessioning, a common practice in the museum world. The Association of Art Museum Directors in April relaxed the rules for how museums can use funds from the sale of artwork to allow them greater flexibility. The change was intended to help struggling museums navigate the financial pain of the pandemic. By its own admission, the BMA is financially sound.
BMA officials have repeatedly noted the Warhol was purchased with funds from a deaccessioned Mark Rothko painting, and, just two years ago, it sold seven paintings, including works by Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland, for $16.2 million and used the proceeds to diversify its collection.
But this latest deaccessioning plan has raised alarm within the museum’s extended community, leading to a letter to state officials seeking to halt the sale and open an investigation. The letter was signed by 150 supporters, including former director Arnold Lehman. Five former board chairs have criticized the plan.
In a letter dated Oct. 15, Newhall resigned as honorary trustee and asked that his name be removed from the public display of support.
“I feel that by leaving my name associated with the museum, I’m tactically supporting the new direction,” he wrote. “I do not agree with Chris Bedford’s vision of rewriting the cannon of art history by rectifying the wrongs of the past. I certainly do not believe that one sells masterpieces to fund diversity.”
Colwill said Bedford and the board were doing irreparable damage to the museum by continuing with the sale. Calling it “an act of a rogue director,” he said the deaccession plan has longtime supporters up in arms.
State officials would not confirm or deny any action they are taking, and museum officials said they have contacted them to offer help. Segal issued a public letter on Thursday saying that criticism of the museum’s decision and its due diligence are without merit.
“The change brought about by the BMA’s Endowment for the Future will impact the shape of our collection, our ability to invite, accommodate, and connect with a greater swath of our community, and to honor the people who work at the BMA by paying them a fair and living wage. These are not abstract goals; these are priorities with lasting impact and with which museums need to be engaged. This is an effort to live our mission, and the change is necessary and long, long overdue,” Segal wrote, adding that she is confident the plan is legal and that the auction will go ahead as planned.
Although the auction is days away, critics continue to pressure museum and state officials. Legal avenues are being explored.
“We’re continuing to consider all options,” said former trustee Laurence J. Eisenstein. “We’re still pressing the board that they should reconsider their decision and we’re continuing to press and present evidence to the attorney general’s office in the hope that they will intervene.”
Critics have said they support the museum’s diversity and equity plans but question the choice of major works and the way the museum is selling them.
“I support the idea of what Christopher Bedford is trying to do. I don’t support the way he’s doing it,” said Sherry Christhilf, a former member of the accessions committee and longtime supporter of the museum. “It’s a sad way, and an easy way. It’s easy to take the good stuff and sell it to make money.”
Segal declined to be interviewed for this story, but in an email to The Washington Post, she wrote that raising money for operations is difficult.
“The majority of donors would rather give to more high-profile projects or initiatives and the board itself is not an endless fount,” she wrote. “If fundraising for salaries was easy, more museums would be paying better wages.”