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Museum's Plan To Sell 40 Works Has Art World Up In Arms

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., announced it would sell 40 works to fund its renovation and endowment, raising concerns from museum organizations that the instiution is treating its collection "as a disposable financial asset." Above, an exhibit at the museum in 2003.
Alan Solomon
The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., announced it would sell 40 works to fund its renovation and endowment, raising concerns from museum organizations that the instiution is treating its collection "as a disposable financial asset." Above, an exhibit at the museum in 2003.

A museum in Western Massachusettts has found itself as the focus of a recurrent discussion in the art world: Is it ever okay for a museum to sell some of its works for financial reasons?

For Van Shields, executive director of the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, the answer is a firm yes.

In a press release, the museum outlined a funding strategy for a "reinvention plan" in which it has "a heightened emphasis on science and history as well as the arts." The museum wants to raise $60 million to carry out its new vision: $40 million to add to its endowment, and $20 million to renovate its building.

It plans to raise those funds by selling 40 works from the museum's collection, pieces which have been deemed "no longer essential to the Museum's new interdisciplinary programs." Among the art earmarked for sale are works by Norman Rockwell, Alexander Calder, Albert Bierstadt, and George Henry Durrie. The museum plans to sell the works at a Sotheby's auction, and expects to net $50 million. All of the works to be sold are "unrestricted and unencumbered," the museum says.

"The process undertaken by the Museum to reach this point has been thoughtful and thorough, marked by intense community engagement and involvement," said Shields in a statement. "The vision for how the Museum can best serve Pittsfield and the Berkshires is a reflection of the wishes of the community that surrounds us. By aligning our vision to community needs today, we will ensure the Museum continues its century-long track record of success as a vital cultural and educational resource for Pittsfield and Berkshire County."

Shields told The Berkshire Eagle the museum's annual structural deficit has averaged approximately $1.15 million for the last 10 years. The museum says approximately 400 people participated in more than two years of research and planning for its future.

"To survive, it is change, move, or die — we have to change," Shields told the newspaper. "It is not about what we have. It is about who are we for."

But some in the art world are aghast at the planned auction. Selling the Rockwells is especially sensitive: The painter is a beloved local figure who lived the last 25 years of his life in Berkshire County.

The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors wrote an open letter to the Berkshire Museum, urging it to reconsider its plans to sell the works.

"One of the most fundamental and long-standing principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset," they wrote.

"Two of the works the Museum is currently planning to sell are important paintings by Norman Rockwell, given by the artist to the people of Pittsfield," the statement says. "These works were entrusted by Rockwell to the Museum for safe-keeping and to share with the public. The other works proposed for sale are by many noted artists from America and around the world. If these works are indeed sold, it would be an irredeemable loss for the present and for generations to come."

The groups warn that such sales send the message to financial donors that their support isn't needed, and to potential donors of artworks that the art could be sold at any time to make up for budget shortfalls: "That cuts to the heart not only of the Berkshire Museum, but every museum in the United States."

The Berkshire Museum is a member of the American Alliance of Museums. The Alliance's Code of Ethics for Museums says proceeds from the sale of collections "are to be used consistent with the established standards of the museum's discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections."

"We can't care for our collection if we don't exist," Shields told The New York Times. "The fact is, we're facing an existential threat, and the board chose the interests of this institution over the interests of these national professional organizations."

"We expected the response that we got," he told the Eagle.

That seems evident in the promotional video announcing the museum's new direction.

"If this is the future of the Berkshire Museum, sign us up," Jen Glockner, Pittsfield's director of cultural development, says in the video, describing how her boys were rapt during a visit to the museum's interactive history and technology exhibits.

The Berkshire Museum was founded in 1903; the 40,000 objects in its collection range from important fine art to natural science specimens and ancient artifacts.

The Berkshires boast a number of prominent art museums, including MASS MoCA in North Adams and the Norman Rockwell Museum in nearby Stockbridge.

If the museum goes through with the sale, recent history suggests there could be consequences. In 2014, the Delaware Art Museum sold a painting from its collection to pay off a debt. The Association of Art Museum Directors reacted with punitive measures, including asking other museums to not to loan works to or collaborate with the Delaware museum.

Detroit weathered its own controversy in 2013, when the city's emergency manager floated the idea of selling works from the Detroit Institute of Arts to help pull the city out of debt. But Michigan's attorney general said the art could not be sold, because it's a "charitable trust for the people of Michigan." A group of local and national foundations came together and pledged more than $330 million to keep the city from auctioning the works.

The Norman Rockwell Museum's director, Laurie Norton Moffatt, wrote an op-ed in the Eagle asking the museum to "pause" the sale and consider other options.

"When I was young, I regularly roamed the halls of the Berkshire Museum," she recalls, before describing the value of one of the Rockwell paintings marked for sale, Shuffleton's Barbershop.

"Rockwell invites us to peer inward, through a window into the world of a small community, gathered in the back room of a barbershop in the quiet evening hours. But before we get there, we must peer through that window and the receding space of the barbershop, traversing a myriad of objects that evoke the daily life of the shop and the barber and through them, the town," she writes. "It is ... a unique masterpiece and one of Rockwell's very best paintings that he gifted to the Berkshire Museum and the people of Berkshire County for education and enjoyment."

"My primary concern," Norton Moffatt writes, "is what it means to the Berkshire community to lose those 40 works of art, which are among the community's greatest treasures, and which we cannot get back."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.