Art for sale to be ID'd, proceeds to pay for Berkshire Museum improvements

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PITTSFIELD — In a reversal of an initial decision, Berkshire Museum next week will release the complete list of artwork it intends to sell at auction.

The move comes amid criticism that the museum decided to keep private the majority of the 40 artworks it plans to sell to support a $60 million revamp of the 114-year-old museum.

"It was a miscalculation not to release the entire list upfront," said Berkshire Museum Executive Director Van Shields.

The museum has already disclosed the titles of the two Norman Rockwell paintings it intends to sell, but not the names of the 38 other artworks also set to be auctioned at Sotheby's within six months.

Rockwell gave "Shuffleton's Barbershop" in 1959 and "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop" in 1966 to the museum as gifts.

Shields said the complete list, which includes impressionist, modern and contemporary artwork from its permanent collection, will be released Monday on the museum's website.

"These works of art have lives of their own and they will be protected and cared for forever," Shields said. "I think it's great that they will breathe new life into the Berkshire Museum so it can also endure forever."

Last week, museum leadership announced plans to sell artwork to pay for a $40 million endowment and a $20 million renovation.

The museum undertook a two-year planning process to arrive at its decision, Shields has said. That process included its 22-member board of trustees and input from more than 400 community members, including arts leaders.

But some community members are saying that process was not inclusive enough.

Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, has called for the museum to halt its plans, a move that Shields said was not likely.

Norton Moffatt is among those who have told The Eagle she is concerned about the potential of the paintings being lost to the region, or to the broader public, if they are sold into private hands.

How the money from the planned auction will be used is also a cause for concern for some.

When proceeds from museum art sales are used for anything other than buying more art that bucks the code of ethics of at least two professional museum organizations — the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums, the latter of which the Berkshire Museum is a member.

In a telephone interview this week, Laura Lott, president and chief executive officer of the alliance, declined to say if it will sanction the museum.

Lott said she will ask Berkshire Museum leadership for more details about its proposed plans during a phone meeting set for next week.

"I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt that they have intentions to follow the standards of the field and I am looking forward to talking with them next week," Lott said.

Shields said he will tell the alliance it plans to use the majority of the money from the sale to strengthen its $8.6 million endowment and help it pay for a planned $20 million museum renovation. The American Alliance of Museums said such a move would violate the alliance's code of ethics.

"At the end of the day, the [Berkshire Museum] board chose this community over national professional associations," Shields said.

Museums that violate the American Alliance of Museums' code of ethics could face repercussions within the museum community. The alliance could choose to instruct other museums not to lend pieces of its collection to, or collaborate with, the Berkshire Museum.

Shields said the museum is prepared for that possibility and does not anticipate it being harmful to the museum.

"We explored every possible ramification of this decision," Shields said. "Loans to the museum have not made a material difference to our programming — which has been more of a focus than lending for exhibitions."

The museum has said the artwork set for auction no longer aligns with its mission as a natural history and science museum. And that moving forward the museum will focus more on public programming — such as hands-on educational opportunities — and less on static exhibitions.

Being "stewards of the museum is the true public trust," he said.

Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 413-496-6221 or @carriesaldo


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