SFMOMA Sold a Rothko for $50 Million to Diversify Its Collection. Here’s What They Bought With the Proceeds

Work by Alma Thomas, Lygia Clark, and Mickalene Thomas are among the new additions to the museum's collection.

Mickalene Thomas, Qusuquzah, une très belle négresse 1 (2011). © Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the an Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel.

In an effort to diversify its collection and address art-historical gaps, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) deaccessioned a prized Mark Rothko painting for $50.1 million at Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale last month. Now, just five weeks later, the museum is putting the money where its mouth is.

Today, SFMOMA is announcing the acquisition of 11 works by 10 artists, all purchased with funds from the sale. Among the new additions are works by American abstract painter Alma Thomas, American surrealist Kay Sage, British abstract painter Frank Bowling, and British-Mexican surrealist Leonora Carrington, as well as more contemporary names like Mickalene Thomas, Barry McGee, and Rebecca Belmore.

Each work addresses a missing link in the institution’s permanent collection, says Gary Garrels, the museum’s senior curator of painting and sculpture, who led the accession effort with chief curator Janet Bishop. And in almost every artist’s case, this is their first work to enter SFMOMA. 

“This is a curator’s dream,” Garrels tells artnet News. “This doesn’t happen very often. Our accession funds in a normal year are very limited, but this has allowed us to do the thing that we want to do the most. Diversifying the collection is the most pressing and essential task for us.”

Frank Bowling, <i>Elder Sun Benjamin</i> (2018). Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel.

Frank Bowling, Elder Sun Benjamin (2018). Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel.

Museum management pulled a portion of the money directly from the Rothko sale to fuel the new purchases and set an additional amount aside to finance further acquisitions already in the pipeline for the next year. The remainder of the money—representing a majority of the proceeds—will be used to establish a new endowment fund. Additional revenue generated from the fund, available two years from now, will be specifically earmarked for purchases that broaden the scope of the permanent collection.

SFMOMA’s decision was not without its detractors. Some took particular umbrage because of the Rothko’s importance and close history with the museum (it was given to the institution after discussions with the artist himself). They wondered why the museum’s wealthy board members were not willing to cough up the money to fund the needed acquisitions instead.

But the museum’s current effort is a product of several years’ worth of conversations among curatorial and administrative staff, according to Garrels. The idea of selling the Rothko specifically came up early last summer. “We immediately began thinking about the possibilities,” the curator explains. “We said, ‘Okay, if the Rothko sold for X amount, what could we do with that? What could we get?’ We started tallying up a list.”

Alma Thomas, <i>Cumulus,</i> (1972). Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel.

Alma Thomas, Cumulus, (1972). Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Katherine Du Tiel.

SFMOMA is not the only museum to make the dramatic decision to sell off work to fund acquisitions that aim to correct historical biases. Last year, the Baltimore Museum of Art sold seven works to create a “war chest” to fund future acquisitions of cutting-edge contemporary art, specifically by women and artists of color. The Art Gallery of Ontario has also launched a similar initiative.

The move is poised to make a particularly meaningful impact on SFMOMA, which has been criticized for the very male, white, abundantly blue-chip nature of its collection of work on long-term loan from the family of Donald and Doris Fisher, which takes up a large portion of its recent expansion. The museum’s director Neal Benezra seemed to gesture at these criticisms in a statement, noting that “we will be able to recontextualize our permanent collection and the Fisher Collection and expand the art historical narratives we share with our visitors.”

Garrels points to postwar art by black and Latin American artists as being underrepresented in the current collection, as well as work by female surrealists from the early 20th century. The new acquisitions are a step in addressing these shortcomings—works by Alma Thomas, Lygia Clark, and Kay Sage fill glaring gaps—but the museum still has a long way to go.

“I have a wishlist longer than my arm,” the curator jokes, noting that many of the artists constituting this newest round of acquisitions have long been near the top. “You just kind of whittle away at it. Building a collection is a matter of being strategic. It’s about setting out a plan, and being opportunistic when it comes to the market.”

The newly accessioned works will begin to go on view alongside the rest of the collection in August.

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