Berkshire Museum signaled intent to sell works weeks before board vote

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PITTSFIELD — Weeks before it voted on a plan to sell 40 works of art, Berkshire Museum leadership signaled its intention to deaccession the works.

A letter from museum attorney Mark Gold, sent on behalf of the trustees and dated June 22, suggests a certainty to the museum's plan and the trustees' vote.

"We did want to apprise you of the museum's plan to deaccession several paintings and other works from its collection and sell those objects at public auction," reads part of Gold's five-page letter to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. The letter goes on to say "to achieve this goal, the Board of Trustees will be voting to sell works of art and other objects from the collection."

But in an interview last month, Berkshire Museum Executive Director Van Shields said the board of trustees wasn't polled prior to its July 12 vote to deaccession 40 artworks to build its endowment and renovate the museum. The board voted just hours before Shields formally announced the plan to guests invited to the museum to hear the news.

The vote was 17 in favor of deaccession and one abstention; four trustees were absent.

That vote was the culmination of a nearly two-year planning process that museum leaders began in December 2015. Board of trustees President Elizabeth "Buzz" McGraw has said a "committee of the whole" studied deaccessioning as an option among other ideas. That research was conducted on "parallel tracks" while consultants, hired by the museum, spoke with 400 invited community members about a new direction for the museum.

The museum's letter to the attorney general listed all 40 artworks it would deaccession, and it also outlined that planning process including its four goals: to "create a sustainable and relevant institution, understand capital needs, make optimal use of collections, and identify risks and opportunities."

The museum didn't release that list to the public until 12 days after its July 12 public announcement. The decision to identify the works on July 24 was a reversal of the museum's initial decision to keep the information private. 

The letter put the artwork auction estimate between $50 million and $75 million, and explained that it planned to put $45 million toward its endowment and millions more toward its renovation.

The sale, set to begin this fall at Sotheby's, is part of the museum's $60 million "reinvention plan" announced last month as a means to stabilize its finances and establish itself as a museum that meets the needs of 21st century audiences. The money from the sale will bolster its endowment and partially fund a renovation of the 114-year-old South Street venue. The museum has said it is facing an annual "structural deficit" of about $1.15 million. That loss has largely been covered by using money from its endowment, currently about $8.6 million, which museum leaders have said they will deplete within eight years if nothing changes.

Meanwhile, Healey's office is looking into whether the planned sale, which has drawn both support and criticism, complies with state law. That information was first reported in a Tweet on Wednesday by Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times.

"We are reviewing the matter to see how it comports with applicable charities law," Emily Snyder, a spokesperson for Healey, said in an email to The Eagle.

The museum has since provided additional information requested by Healey's office, according to Gold, who did not go into specifics.

Gold's letter, sent as a courtesy to Healey's office and provided by Gold to The Eagle, stated museum leadership believed its plans to be in accordance with state law.

"Since the objects being sold do not constitute all or substantially all of the assets of the Berkshire Museum and will not result in a material change in the nature of the activities conducted by the corporation, no notice under Section 8A was required," Gold wrote in an email in response to a question from The Eagle.

Massachusetts General Law states a "corporation constituting a public charity" must notify the attorney general at least 30 days prior to any sale of "all of its property and assets if that sale, lease, exchange or other disposition involves or will result in a material change in the nature of the activities conducted by the corporation."

Gold's letter to Healey made clear that its planned sale did not include a substantial portion of its collection nor would in "result in material change" and added that "none of the objects to be sold are subject to restriction."

"We believe that no formal action is required to be taken by the Office of the Attorney General," wrote Gold, an expert in deaccession law.

Gold's letter went on to explain that museum leadership had explored a number of options to "stabilize and sustain the museum's finances for the long term" before it decided on deaccession, the art world term for selling items from a museum's collection.

"Rather than wait until the structural deficit reduced the reserves of the museum to a precarious level, the museum elected to reinvent how it serves the community and how it ensures its own survival," Gold wrote.

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

Berkshire Museum Letter to Attorney General Maura Healey by The Berkshire Eagle on Scribd


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