Lucas museum buys Rockwell's 'Shuffleton's Barbershop'

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PITTSFIELD — The future home of the devoted musicians depicted in "Shuffleton's Barbershop" will be a sleek, 300,000-square-foot museum now rising in Exposition Park in south Los Angeles.

When the Berkshire Museum said in February that an unidentified nonprofit museum would acquire Norman Rockwell's acclaimed painting, the list of prospective buyers was short.

On Wednesday, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art made it official: It has acquired the painting. The museum, which broke ground March 14 and is expected to open in 2022, was co-founded by George Lucas, the famed movie director, and his spouse, Mellody Hobson.

In an interview last month with The New York Times, Don Bacigalupi, president of the Lucas museum, did not rule out his institution's interest in the 1950 Rockwell painting, given by the artist to the Berkshire Museum. 

"There's nothing that I can say at this point," Bacigalupi told the newspaper.

That changed Wednesday, when Bacigalupi announced the acquisition, calling Rockwell "one of our nation's most important storytellers" and noting the importance of his work to the Berkshires and Massachusetts as a whole.

The Lucas museum, he said, is honored "to become the public steward of this major work."

"This cultural treasure will continue to be seen and enjoyed by the public in an American museum, where it will be a source of inspiration for generations to come," Bacigalupi said.

The museum did not reveal the sale price. The Pittsfield museum first planned to sell "Shuffleton's" at a Sotheby's auction. The bid range placed on the work at the time was $20 million to $30 million.

The painting will be loaned to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge this year and be exhibited there into 2020, the California museum said. That timetable adheres to an agreement reached between the Pittsfield museum and the state attorney general in February after months of litigation.

The other possible buyer, in what turned out to be a private transaction handled by Sotheby's, was considered by most observers to be the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., founded by Alice L. Walton. Though now working for Lucas as the California museum's founding president, Bacigalupi formerly served with the Arkansas museum.

Crystal Bridges and the new Lucas museum were seen as top candidates because both possess works by Rockwell — and have deep pockets.

"Shuffleton's Barbershop" is considered to be the Berkshire County artist's finest painting, lending another reason for high-profile collections to want to count it among their holdings.

But the Arkansas museum confirmed early Wednesday, before the Lucas museum announcement, that it is not the unnamed buyer.

"You can rule us out. It was not us," said Beth Bobbitt, the museum's public relations manager.

Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Stockbridge museum, expressed appreciation to the Lucas museum for keeping the painting available to the public, including the planned loan to her institution.

"It is especially meaningful for the people of Berkshire County who will have the opportunity to enjoy this masterpiece for a few more years," she said in remarks provided by the Lucas museum.

Rich in Rockwells

The Lucas museum's seed collection, gathered by the filmmaker, includes multiple works by Rockwell, and mentions the artist prominently in its promotional materials.

The collection includes 13 paintings by Rockwell and eight studies. Among the paintings are "The Gossips" (1948), "After the Prom" (1957), "River Pilot" (1940) and "Couple in Rumbleseat" (1935). Lucas was identified as the person who paid $46 million when another Rockwell work, "Saying Grace," came up for sale in 2013. That was the highest price paid to date for a Rockwell work.

According to MAD Architects, the Los Angeles museum's designer, the $1.5 billion project is meant to suggest that "a futuristic spaceship" has landed on its 11-acre site, located near other museums and the University of Southern California campus.

"People from all walks of life are welcome to feel and appreciate this cultural paradise," the architectural firm says of the future museum on its website. "The interior of the building has been designed as a huge bright and open cave."

At the groundbreaking last month, Lucas said his goal is to help spur imagination among museum visitors and "inspire them to dream beyond what is considered possible."

"Narrative art and storytelling stirs our emotions, shapes our aspirations as a society, and is the glue that binds us together around our common beliefs," he said in remarks provided by the museum.

One key to that, the museum says, is to present works where patrons engage "with art forms they may already recognize and love."

"Imagine a place where a fan of Norman Rockwell's familiar art makes a meaningful connection with a cutting edge 21st-century digital animator," the museum says on its website.

The Lucas family expects to provide at least a $400 million endowment for the museum. The collection will present works in three categories — narrative art, the art of the cinema (including outtakes from the filmmaker's projects, including "Star Wars") and digital art.

When the new museum was considering locating in San Francisco, a newspaper's art critic there got an early look at the collection. "The value of these materials goes beyond their rarity as objects ... they are the irreplaceable source of our view, literally, of the world," Charles Desmarais wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Going nonprofit

Opposition to the sale, including by three of the late artist's sons, included concerns that a sale at auction might curtail public access to the painting.

The agreement announced Feb. 9 between the Berkshire Museum and Attorney General Maura Healey addressed that — and was hailed as a breakthrough after months of litigation.

Not only would the work be bought by another museum, rather than a private individual, the parties said, it would be loaned to the Norman Rockwell Museum for up to 24 months after the sale.

That timing led to additional speculation that the Lucas museum would acquire the painting, since it would not be able to show the work until its expected opening in 2022.

One other person known to collect works by Rockwell, the film director and producer Steven Spielberg, recently joined the board of the Lucas museum. The February agreement said the painting would be purchased by another museum, taking Spielberg out of contention.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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