Art History & the Backfire Effect.

by María Magdalena Ziegler D.


What would you think will happen if you try to change history in order to build a better present? It will backfire at you. In your face. Without warning.

Equality is not an universal concept nowadays. It has not been a concept that every culture in the past has shared either. We could change our present and define our future by making this world a better place, where equal rights could be part of each and every individual regardless of race, gender, political or religious beliefs, social-economic status, etc.

And even though our future is ours to define, our past is not. Then why do we try to change it so eagerly knowing it is impossible? Well, we might give up on this at some point, but then we look at History and say: “Hey! I can change the way things are told. Let’s retell everything from the past and make it better.” It is not so simple.

History is a matter of serious studies. It is not just about telling a story about the past. We could be interested in women and their lives in Antiquity, for instance, and with that renewed interest change the way we used to recognize and even interpret the history of this period. But we cannot pretend Julius Caesar did not exist just to make room to the lives of women of his time. That is absurd.

The Baltimore Museum of Art

Recently, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) decided they needed more room for art works by artists not yet represented in its collection. To do so they come with a not so clever idea: to sell some art works from their permanent collection to liberate space for the new ones.

The BMA is well-known for its collection of more than 95.000 objects. Henri Matisse has a presence of over 1000 pieces in it, just to mention a brief highlight. Its educational programs are innovative and very appreciated among the community. We are not talking about a mediocre institution at all.

As reported by Artnet, Christopher Bedford, director of the BMA, has stated that

the move will be “absolutely transformative” for a collection that has woefully underrepresented non-white artists, and African American artists in particular. It also comes at a “historically significant moment,” he says, “in that the most important artists working today, in my view, are black Americans.”

What can we learn about that? Bedford could be right about the most important artists of out time being black Americans, but is that a reason to change the whole art history implicit in a museum art collection?

Whatever he is doing could be “absolutely transformative” of the history of art as the MBA has been telling it. And it could be as balsamic as it could be dangerous. It could give a rightful place for artists who have been overlooked in the past for different biases. Getting rid of that biases in the present time could open a space to a better understanding of our creative past. This is balsamic. No doubt.

Chris Bedford, Director of the BMA

Nevertheless, it could also open the perilous path of changing history, art history in this case. When you get rid of A to make space for B, you forget A. Discrimination curated by discriminating? Or perhaps changing our views of the past to change our present? Whatever it is, it is not looking good. It is dangerous.

Consequently, it will never be appropriate to make an art collection more diverse by cutting out diversity. It’s a contradiction. When the BMA sells a work by Warhol to make room for a painting by Mark Bradford it is just erasing a part of the history of art as told by its collection and substituting it by a new one.

Warhol and Bradford should be a part of the history of art told by that collection. Of course, Bedford has said that:

“I did not see a way to fulfill all of our capital aspirations, exhibition-making aspirations, and raise money to be competitive in the contemporary art market… It wasn’t a possibility.”

But let’s be honest for a chance. Is this about art history financing its own destruction? Cannibalism, maybe? It looks like it and that is preposterous.

It is clear that the BMA should be closer to its community and in a city with more than 60% of its population being black, it seems only right to incorporate black artists to the core of its collection. There is no arguing with that. But we will never agree with the method this museum is using.

Catherine Douglas, Contemporary Art Society

Thus, this deaccession of art works is something to worry about. Caroline Douglas, from the Contemporary Art Society, has declared that the way a museum should represent a community is a very important conversation that should not be avoided. In fact, she considers there is a line that a museum should not cross when it comes to deaccession:

“It’s quite a red line. We give on condition that the museum never sells our gifts. Museums are the forever proposition – that’s why artists want to be in them,” she said. “My view is that we can’t wipe out our history but we need to keep on reflecting society, and use museums as great engines for rethinking that history.”

Art history cannot be changed to satisfy our present needs and demands. Even though we can incorporate artists who were diminished or simply annulated by art historians in the past, it is just not right to pretend Michelangelo never existed just to make room for Bernini. They both existed, they were great artists in their own times and contexts, they both deserve to be in an art history account of our creative past.


Therefore, museums should rethink their acquisitions policies along side with their research and curatorial trends. They should not forget the present needs in present times and not confuse them with past needs and times.

“Chris Bedford is a rising star” – has expressed a member of the Board of Trustees of the BMA. We guess that against such an astronomical phenomena there is little we can do. Except, perhaps, be prepared to the backfire effect that will come next.  

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You would also like to read:  Censored Art in times of #MeToo /  Art History matters even to Wonder Woman

2 thoughts on “Art History & the Backfire Effect.

  1. Pingback: Museums, visitors, and records that shouldn’t be broken – ars.vox

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