When I lived in Baltimore in the 1990s, I was sustained by the Matisses at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Headlined by Blue Nude (1907), the painting that catalyzed 20th century art, the BMA has one of the finest Matisse collections in the world. The BMA has strong holdings not only of Matisse’s paintings, but of his sculpture and, more recently, of his works on paper.
I did not enjoy living in Baltimore: Only Detroit keeps ironically-nicknamed Charm City from being held up as America’s saddest example of urban abandonment. At the time I was making only about $350 a week, so going to the BMA was about all I could afford to do. I visited the museum at least once a week, trying to learn Matisse’s his methods, his successes, and his progression. There aren’t many museums in which you can follow Matisse from the 19th century up until just before his late-career cut-outs. The BMA is one of those places. Its collection of Matisses is one of the most special accumulations of a single artist in any American museum. The Matisses and many other modern masterpieces — I’m not just throwing that word around, the quality of the BMA’s Gauguin and Cezanne, to name just two, match up with anyone’s — were given to the BMA by Baltimore-based sisters Claribel and Etta Cone, who bought widely and wisely in Paris. [Image below, left: Matisse, Etta Cone (VI/VI), 1931–1934. Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.]
Sadly, the BMA is increasingly uncommitted to sharing its unique Matisse experience with today’s Baltimoreans. Last week, the Indianapolis Museum of Art announced that the BMA is renting out its Matisses for an October show at the IMA. This is not museuming-as-usual, a museum loaning art (at no cost) to a thoughtful, historicizing or scholarly exhibition in the way museums typically share art and contribute to our knowledge of art history. No, the BMA is simply renting out a substantial selection of its art collection. It apparently hoped no one would notice: No museum spokesperson was able to discuss the transaction until the day after the IMA announced Baltimore’s news. The BMA eventually confirmed to me that the show was designed not as a collection-exchange (‘we’ll send you Matisses if you send us your African collection’) but as an explicit revenue generator. A BMA spokesperson said that it would likely rent out the Matisses to another museum after the IMA, too. (A BMA spokesperson told me that the BMA was excited about this because it meant that it would get to share its art with Indianapolis. That’s strange; I’m pretty sure that the community referenced in the BMA’s mission and vision statements is Baltimore, not Indianapolis.)
This is not the first time the BMA has rented out its Matisses: In 2011 the BMA put together “Collecting Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore” for The Jewish Museum in New York. I cringed, but at least there was some context for the show: Claribel and Etta were the daughters of German-Jewish immigrants; showing their collection at The Jewish Museum had the potential to add context and understanding both to the Jewish experience in America and to our knowledge of the development of the Cones’ collection. (It was substantially a missed opportunity: The catalogue produced for the show lacked substance.) A version of that presentation traveled to the Vancouver Art Gallery and is now at the Nasher Museum at Duke University. (In hindsight, I wish I had written this post when the BMA traveled The Jewish Museum show.)
The rental to the IMA is nothing but a cash-grab. As such it seems to violate the Association of Art Museum Directors guidelines. (Alas, the AAMD has never enforced its own guidelines on rental deals, not even when The Phillips Collection, the MFA Boston and the MCASD have rented art to a commercial gallery in a Las Vegas casino.) I’ve written about these collection-rental shows many times before, so I won’t re-count my arguments at length here. In short: They re-monetize art that American museums themselves (via their tax filings) have explicitly de-monetized. They are unrelated to the further creation of knowledge about art or art history. They elevate making-a-buck over careful stewardship. J. Paul Getty Trust president and CEO James Cuno has argued that rental arrangements violate a non-profit institution’s social contract with its home. Adapting his argument to this case, the BMA is a tax-exempt Maryland institution. As a result of that tax exemption, the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland receive no tax monies related to the museum’s property, etc. An implicit part of that contract is that the BMA serves Baltimore and Maryland, not Indiana.
Indeed, the BMA rentals are worse than most other examples of art museums renting out art. Baltimore is not renting out of the depths of its storage locker, it’s taking its best art off of its walls. The BMA has a wonderful (but somewhat neglected) collection of Antioch mosaics, a pleasant but not especially distinguished collection of European painting, and some lovely collections of other things (including two marvelous new Sarah Oppenheimers, which made MAN’s best-of-2012 list), but the Cone Collection Matisses are the heart and the liver and the kidneys of the place. When the BMA takes its most wonderful art and rents it out to another place, it’s thumbing its nose at its home.
The BMA’s treatment of its members and its home audience is all the worse because of how taxpayers in Baltimore city, Baltimore County and the state of Maryland have supported the BMA in recent years. Starting in 2006, Baltimore city and Baltimore County granted money to the BMA to enable free admission at the museum (a program the museum continued after public funding ran out because it successfully raised admission-specific endowment funds). Since then, Maryland residents have funded the BMA in other waysand last fall Baltimore residents voted in favor of a bond initiative for the museum. [Matisse's Blue Nude (1907) in the Cone Collection galleries at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo via Flickr user Darren and Brad.]
BMA leadership has responded to its public’s commitment to the museum by renting the art it holds in trust for that public to a museum 600 miles away. The BMA has played Marylanders for suckers, taking their money while shipping Baltimore’s best art to British Columbia, North Carolina and Indiana. BMA leaders, including its board and director Doreen Bolger, owe Marylanders more than that.