The COVID Hydra Bites a Baltimore Museum

Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper at the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Andy Warhol. The Last Supper. 1986. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from Harry A. Bernstein Memorial Collection, 1989.62. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy Baltimore Museum of Art. Installation photo by Stephen Spartana.)
A Greek monster’s venom could hardly do more damage.

The COVID catastrophe unfolds obviously, subtly, and deviously. It’s a many-headed monster like the Hydra of Lerna, killed by the Greek hero Heracles as his Second Labor. Hydra has paid a call to Baltimore, sticking its snout in the venerable Baltimore Museum of Art.

The jealous, quick-to-anger Hera, the wife of top god Zeus, created the Hydra to kill Heracles, her husband’s bastard son. Zeus was the randiest of gods, and she’d had it. The last straw happened when Hera agreed to suckle the baby Heracles, a nice, forgiving gesture. He was so strong — and must have been hungry — that he nearly bit her breast to shreds. Pulling him away in pain and shock, a burst of milk splattered the sky, creating the Milky Way.

After that, Hera had it in for Heracles. Heracles was human, not a god, though he becomes one eventually. His surfeit of strength and testosterone upset her idea of decorum, plus she was sore for weeks.

The Hydra terrorized the villages surrounding Lake Lerna by spewing not milk but poison from its many heads, but that was merely a pastime. Its mission was to await Heracles, kill him, and avenge Zeus’s infidelity.

Hercules, 1921, by John Singer Sargent. Oil on canvas. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Public domain/via Wikimedia)

Heracles thought his First Labor, killing and skinning the Nemean Lion, was tough, but it was pussycat work compared to the Hydra. Trouble was, cut off one of the Hydra’s heads, and another, maybe two or three more, would grow. Heracles approached its swampy lair and killed the implacable menace by cutting off head after head and then cauterizing the stump so a new head wouldn’t grow.

Heracles performed ten more Labors, among them slaying man-eating birds and mad mares, capturing crazy Spanish cows, pilfering the magic girdle of the Amazon queen, and diverting a river to cleanse the Augean stables. Like the consequences of closing the world economy to fight a virus, something never done in human history, Heracles faced unorthodox, unprecedented challenges.

In America, no one in authority, it seems, thought beyond the “bend the curve” slogan, much less beyond tricks like borrowing $2 trillion in a weekend, throwing 50 million children from school and 50 million from their jobs, and forcing a nation of 330 million into a lockdown. Hubris, also a Greek phenomenon, is extreme overconfidence. It’s the pretension, naïve and arrogant, that the laws of the gods apply to everyone except us.

It never occurred to public-health zilches, the Trump-hating press, and the neurotic among us that grand gestures like these would have consequences such as skyrocketing child, spousal, and drug abuse, or the deaths of millions of small businesses. “Not my problemo,” they say. Working-class and poor children won’t catch up on lost schooling, denting their incomes and ambitions for life. “Boo hoo.” The dead don’t get proper funerals. The old and sick are locked in nursing homes. “Too bad.” Cancer screenings and treatments are canceled. The hospitality and travel industries are trashed. The arts are slammed shut and going broke. We’ve created our own red, white, and blue Hydra.

And in Baltimore, an eccentric, high-spirited city with a seriously good arts community, there’s a newly sprung Hydra, tossing its curls with the abandon of a big-hair starlet in a shampoo commercial.

Baltimore Museum of Art ("Baltimore_Museum_of_Art_(1929;_John_Russell_Pope,_architect),_10_Art_Museum_Drive,_Baltimore,_MD_21218_(40330853244)" by Eli Pousson is licensed under CC0 1.0.)

People are doing crazy things left and right, north, south, east, and west. In early October, the board of the venerable Baltimore Museum of Art deaccessioned, or removed from the collection, three prime paintings: Brice Marden’s 3, from 1987, Clifford Still’s 1957-G, from 1957, and Andy Warhol’s big Last Supper, from 1986. They sent the Warhol to be sold privately through Sotheby’s. Sotheby’s was set to auction the Marden and the Still at a sale this past Wednesday. The total, net haul from the three for the museum was estimated at $55 million.

Minutes before the sale, the museum pulled out. It issued a statement saying that it listened to supporters and detractors and had a private conversation with the head of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD).

What happened? The museum’s leaders got hit by a caravan of Hydra-driven buses, that’s what happened.

The museum planned to use $10 million to go on an acquisitions spending spree. It wants to pay a consultant $500,000 to train the staff in proper racial and indigeneity behavior. It hoped to have $54 million left for an endowment generating $2.5 million for salary increases, free admission for exhibitions, and late evening hours. The budget for the museum this year is $20 million, so this is a hefty generator of new income.

With their eyes widened by the gleam of so much loot, the director and the trustees enlisted the curators in a conflict of interest. The curators, we’re told, vetted the objects to be sold. They’d get pay raises, and their departments weren’t going to be gutted to pay for the board’s and the director’s social-justice-warrior fantasies. They can’t possibly be objective, since they’ve got a Hydra head breathing down their necks.

Earlier this year, the Association of Art Museum Directors changed a long-standing and ferociously defended policy requiring that money raised from selling art from the collection be used only to buy more art. The fake COVID calamity — the death rate, once we look beyond the statistics that the government has rigged to heighten the panic, is no worse than a bad flu season — frightened AAMD’s board as museums closed and income from admissions and events crashed.

AAMD said museums could sell art and use the money for “collection care,” implying that this was for budget relief only and a temporary measure.

Of course, museum boards and directors could have helped themselves by reopening as soon as they could, but that would mean the top brass putting on grown-up clothes and going to work. Most museum leaders, we’ve learned, want to Zoom away their days, reserving time to garden, fish, tan, or read Narnia tales, public be damned. Oh, and send love letters to the anti-Semitic, anti-police hate group Black Lives Matter.

Once AAMD tweaked its rules, museums naturally started to define “collection care” as everything and anything. It means conservation and storage costs. It means the percentage of time that curators spend on the permanent collection. It means utility bills.

How museums account for this money is impossible to police. When I was a curator and director, I knew down to the last dime how much money I had to spend on art. My art money was generated by separate art-acquisition endowments or my fundraising to buy art. Since that dollar amount was transparent, it was untouchable. If the trustees tried to grab it, they knew they’d have a scandal on their hands. It wouldn’t be illegal, but AAMD would sanction the museum, meaning public mortification.

The change meant in-house budget-makers could grab “collection care” money to balance the budgets. Curators won’t squawk. Their masters will make it clear that the alternative is layoffs. Most curators have rudimentary arithmetic skills at best. They won’t be able to figure out how much money finance directors are diverting.

It means museums can use their collections as an ATM. Trustees will soon learn there is a hidden beauty in this. They can generate income, and relieve their own giving responsibilities, by selling art. And they can cloak themselves, as the trustees at the Baltimore museum did, in the warm, fuzzy blanket of social goodness. “We’re doing it for diversity,” they coo.

What a steaming pile of lefty bourgeois altruism. If the rich honkies want to strike a blow for equity, they should open their own wallets.

When news of the Baltimore deaccession hit the streets, the local arts community exploded. A group of former trustees went to Maryland’s attorney general demanding that the sale be stopped. Their reasoning is flimsy. What the museum is doing is not illegal. There’s no “do not deaccession” in a deed of gift, since the paintings were bought with museum money.

Then, earlier this week, AAMD did a reverse tweak. Its president, Brent Benjamin, the director of the St. Louis Museum of Art, whom I like, said the new rules on deaccession were meant to raise money to ease desperate financial problems caused by the crazy COVID lockdowns. They were not meant “to permit museums to achieve other, non-collection-specific goals.”

Baltimore wasn’t planning to use the money for budget relief in a crisis. Hydra had visions of anti-racist sugar plums dancing in its heads. The museum was going to use the money to create its own little equity, inclusion, and diversity nirvana.

On Wednesday, 14 former presidents of AAMD issued a terse statement asking the trustees of the Baltimore museum to “reconsider” the sale, given AAMD’s clarification.

“Any opposition,” Bedford had said of his plan, “is itself an investment in a system of operating institutions that is very deeply centered in white power and white privilege.” Defy me, he suggests, and you’re a racist. This is playing dirty — very dirty. He says he’s “trying to advance a new and more just future for the museum.” It’s “the ruling class” that’s blocking the stairway to heaven.

They need to get rid of this guy. I like him personally. He’s Scottish, from Glasgow, so he’s probably a socialist. He’s pushing the envelope, and that’s what museum directors do. He’s charming, and he has manipulated his board chair.

What he’s done, though, is create a huge stink among big donors that’s reached the headlines. Two former board chairs have said they’re withdrawing a combined total of $50 million in pledges in protest. The current board chair says they’re liars. These pledges were pie-in-the-sky promises with no written record. The ex-chairs say that’s a lie, though, I must admit, a pledge that’s not in writing doesn’t exist. When Hydra talks to the press, there’s no more noxious a poison.

This institution is now damaged. I hate seeing news of museum avarice and incompetence in the papers. It makes the entire community look bad.

AAMD doesn’t look good, either. Benjamin put the collective museum establishment’s foot on the brakes now, but AAMD staff, the Baltimore museum says, approved its plan. When AAMD diluted its absolute ban on the use of art-sale money for purposes other than buying art, it had to know it was inviting what Baltimore tried to do. I knew it, and I’m a simple country soul. There are a hundred museum directors itching to monetize their collections.

Right now, AAMD’s message is still murky. Baltimore’s problem, it suggests, is that it said too much. It divulged too many details of its spending plans, proving that the deaccession-and-sale stunt had nothing to do with filling deficits caused by the COVID hysteria. Had the museum said, “We’re doing this because we’re in the hole,” AAMD suggests, the museum establishment would have looked the other way.

Instead, the Baltimore director and trustees indulged themselves in an orgy of virtue-signaling. It’s still doing it. “The calls for change in the museum field are right and just,” it said on Wednesday in its surrender, with “We Shall Overcome” playing in the background.

I suggest that arts lovers in Baltimore, especially in its rich suburbs, give their art and money to the Walters Art Gallery, also in Baltimore. It’s superb, serves the public assiduously, and, blessedly, gets no bad publicity. It has one of the finest collections in the country, does good exhibitions, and has a great presence in Baltimore’s schools.

There’s another false value at work here. I wrote about the Baltimore museum’s decision to sell art in 2018 to buy art by women, African-American, and Hispanic artists, underrepresented in the collection. The museum raised $10 million. I felt that, while this is certainly a legal option for the director and the board, it’s an unwise and unnecessary one.

The director, if he wants to buy art by artists based on race or gender or nationality, should go out and raise the money from donors. I raised millions to buy art, and I got donors to give art. It takes work.

I have one thing to say in the museum’s favor. I’ve read that the Warhol is a masterpiece. It isn’t, and neither is the Marden or the Still. Warhol ran out of steam in 1968 when he was shot. After that, he was a talented magazine publisher and a TV celebrity. From a scholar’s point of view, his Last Supper expresses his devout Catholicism. Warhol was as close to being a gay eunuch as I’ve ever seen. He generated the drug-infused Factory, where a great many young people twiddled their days away. He was a nut and a publicity hound. He was a guest star on Love Boat. His slide in the quality of his art was steep and fast, after which he bobbed on the ocean of the New York fab world for nearly 20 years. Still, he was sincerely religious, and this part of his career is unexplored.

The Last Supper is huge, about 18 feet wide. Who’d want it? It’s blasphemous as far as a rich sheik is concerned. Would you put it in a dining room? Seems like a dinner-party downer. I’ve seen it. It’s ugly.

This is not a done deal. I suspect the museum will sell something big — and sell it privately. The Warhol was not to be auctioned. Sotheby’s was selling it in its capacity as a private dealer. Someone will buy it. Alas, the confluence of big money and bad taste is one Hydra that not even Heracles could slay.

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