After two weeks, Berkshire Museum plan to sell art has supporters and detractors

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PITTSFIELD — Shock in the art world is nothing new, and typically it's the result of some splashy contemporary work.

So the thought that a bunch of old(ish) paintings has the attention of so many in the region might come as a bit of a head-scratcher.

But the recent decision by the Berkshire Museum to auction off 40 artworks from its collection has caused something of an uproar in the community — and the art world at large.

The sale is part of a $60 million strategy to secure the 114-year-old venue's future. Proceeds would help provide a $40 million boost for the museum's endowment and fund a $20 million renovation of the South Street institution.

Without changes, the county's first museum will be out of cash within six to eight years, Van Shields, the museum executive director, told The Eagle this week.

Several museum experts said the artworks on the list are among the most important of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Not to mention that many of the paintings have strong ties to the region and have been with the museum from the jump.

But museum leadership say the works don't meet its future needs.

A chosen recommitment to science and natural history means the Berkshire Museum can differentiate itself from other area powerhouse art museums — the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and the Norman Rockwell Museum, he said.

Shields and museum trustees have said the decision followed two years of research, meetings and master planning led by consultants.Deaccession, the museum world term for selling stuff, can be a dirty word. For many museum leaders it's a no-no to sell pieces from a collection unless you plan to buy more stuff or care for what's already in-house.

Because Berkshire Museum has decided to spend money from its planned auction on an endowment and renovation, two professional museum organizations — the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors — issued a joint statement this week that decried its plans. The statement called for the museum to reconsider, and offered the groups' assistance.

That resulted in national attention. The New York Times, Boston Globe, and Wall Street Journal are among the publications that gave the story ink.

A third group, the Association of Art Museum Curators, also has come out against the museum's plan.

All of this is also being buzzed about on a variety of arts blogs and social media.

Local reaction to the announcement, as well as from the national museum scene, has ranged from "I am appalled" to "Do it!"

At first, people were reluctant to criticize the museum's decision; the creative types in the Berkshires tend to be a collaborative bunch.

But then Laurie Norton Moffatt, head of the Rockwell museum, called on the Berkshire Museum to rethink its plans, which includes the sale of two Rockwell paintings. And others have followed suit.

Museum leadership, which said it expected the pushback, is willing to hear feedback and ideas. But it is also holding firm to its plans.

Those who support the museum's plans also are raising their voices, the most prominent among them being Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson. The talk on both sides has overwhelmed our editorial pages, making it the year's most written about local issue to date.

In an effort to fully understand the challenges the museum is facing, The Eagle has requested a variety of information from the Berkshire Museum; much of it has been provided and some has not.

The request for a vote tally and minutes from its July 12 board of trustees meeting was denied, pending approval of those at its September board meeting. The names of the 400 people who took part in its two-year long planning process were not made available because the museum said it told participants their names would be kept confidential.

When asked for access to profit and loss statements from the past two years, The Eagle was referred to online filings, which do not include those years. And, citing security reasons, museum leadership is mum on whether the artwork is still in the building.

A date, or dates, for the pending auction also is unclear. The museum won't talk dates and Sotheby's, which is handling the auction, has said it will dish on them in September.

Timeline

July 12: Museum board of trustees approves the sale of the 40 artworks. "Reinvention plan," two years in the making, is announced. Two Norman Rockwell paintings are the only artworks, of the 40 to be sold, disclosed to the public.

July 21: Norman Rockwell Museum leader Laurie Norton Moffatt suggests the museum "pause" its plans and consider other options. Berkshire Museum leaders hold firm.

July 22: Berkshire Museum agrees to release the list of artworks to be auctioned, a reversal of its initial stance.

July 25: List of 40 artworks released. In addition to Rockwell, the list includes works by William-Adolphe Bougureau, Alexander Calder and Rembrandt Peale.

July 26: Two national professional museum organizations bristle at museum's plan. They say selling art for financial gain violates professional standards. The museum says it has chosen "fiduciary responsibility" over a suggested code of ethics.

July 28: Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop" and "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop" called "beautiful examples of his mature period" by Stephanie Plunkett, deputy director of the Rockwell museum.

July 30: Mass MoCA's Joseph Thompson speaks in support of the museum's decision, and its planning process. He encourages community members to get out their checkbooks. Thompson declined The Eagle's request for an interview, saying his statement spoke for itself.

July 30: Museum leadership holds to its plans a day after a third professional organization — the Association of Art Museum Curators — called for it to step back from the sale.

In their own words ...

"Why be one of four [museums], when you can be one of one?"

— Berkshire Museum Executive Director Van Shields, on decision to place science and natural history at its core, while also continuing to showcase art

"Competing against other major art institutions, that is not our niche. Why deaccession and keep doing our failed model?"

— Elizabeth "Buzz" McGraw, president of Berkshire Museum's board of trustees

"Facing up to stark economic realities is not easy institutional work, and unless you've breathed deeply of an institution tipping on the edge of existence, you cannot imagine the challenges."

— Joseph Thompson, director of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art

"It is easy to think of artworks as financial assets, and to assign them a monetary value. It is difficult to put into words their intrinsic and emotional value, their ability to expand a horizon, invite a journey into the interior of oneself."

— Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of Norman Rockwell Museum

"If art will remain a key part of the Berkshire Museum's mission, then I don't see how selling many of these works can do anything except undermine the mission."

— Richard Rand, former curator, former Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

"You take away the charm, quirkiness, and the most valuable pieces that were clearly put there for the public domain, what do you have? You have a building."

— Lynn Villency Cohen, art historian

A1 teaser: Were you one of the 400 people the Berkshire Museum chatted with to formulate its plans? We want to hear from you. Email csaldo@berkshireeagle.com


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