Lynn Villency Cohen: Museum ethically upends deaccessioning process

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STOCKBRIDGE — In a quest to improve summer literacy skills, the Berkshire Museum played a little game entitled "Word of the Day." One word "deaccessioning," defined Berkshire County's summer vocabulary, triggered by the museum's announced mega art sell-off.

So with that, let's take a moment to examine how museums approach art deaccessioning, acknowledging that most institutions rigorously adhere to a set of ethics and guidelines promulgated by the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors.

Indeed there are a number of steps that museums will carefully follow in deaccessioning works of art and they are set forth in each institution's collections policies. Given the enormity surrounding the Berkshire Museum's sale, a scrutiny of the steps this institution has taken is warranted.

Action of disregard

First and foremost in these guidelines is the notion that no objects will be sold to raise funds for operating expenses or capital projects. In the case of the Berkshire Museum, we have the polar opposite in which the millions gained will be funneled into a newly renovated building of an entirely different focus, with a portion of the money set aside for operating funds. It is an action of disregard for the most basic tenets of museum custodianship.

Secondly, guidelines state that museums should only deaccession objects with clear title. While the museum's attorneys have stated that there are no restrictions to any of these works and the museum holds clear title, questions abound.

Being that most, if not all the works to be sold came into the collection decades ago, and the museum has not provided information in the way of provenance, accession dates, donor letters and deeds of gifts, questions of clear title remain. The written letters exchanged with donors and documentation from museum staff are of critical importance, given that many of the works entered the collection at a time when the museum world was built on the gentleman's handshake.

To understand, for instance, the intentions of Norman Rockwell's significant gifts estimated at $40 million for the two paintings, one would need to examine the correspondence between the artist and the director of the museum at the time of the donation. Are we to blindly trust attorney Mark Gold's insistence that every one of these 42 works were given without restrictions to sell?

A critical component set forth in deaccession guidelines is that all deaccessioning decisions must be fully documented by the Curator of Collections, including a record on the cause for deaccessioning, method chosen and authority for deaccessioning. As first line custodians of art collections, it is the curator who will typically initiate deaccessioning discussions for reasons such as extreme deterioration, authenticity issues, or that the work has little monetary value. The curator will inform the museum's executive director in writing of the specific deaccessioning considerations.

The Berkshire Museum did not have a curator on staff since 2015 which means that during the two-year planning period leading to the deaccessioning of 42 highest quality works of art, this important museum position stood empty. Perplexing indeed, as it calls into question just who has been driving this sale if for two years there has been no curator on staff with art historical background? And in the absence of a staff expert, one wonders if outside experts were consulted in taking the necessary steps and exercise of care in this deaccession process? So far, no one has been identified; all the more suspect, given the wealth of expertise in the Berkshires where prominent art and museum professionals are numerous.

Finally, in keeping with proper museum procedure, the proposal to deaccession will be subject to a majority vote of the full Board of Directors. If the vote is affirmative, the museum's attorney will determine whether the office of the attorney general of Massachusetts should be consulted.

Again, the Berkshire Museum's attorney Mark Gold informed Attorney General Martha Healey on June 22, about three weeks prior to the July 12 board vote; certainly this gives the appearance that the executive director and lawyer were moving full steam ahead to a fait accompli, even without the blessing of the full board. But no doubt the executive director and his lawyers were supremely confident that this board, stacked with business professionals and lawyers, had already signed on for the ride.

Meanwhile somewhere in these summer months, the 42 works that had been displayed in the main galleries for generations, disappeared from public view, stripped off the walls, no doubt in the middle of the night for a road trip to Sotheby's storage. By July 24 the public was informed of the complete list of works to be sold in a highly compressed timeline beginning in November.

Deaf ear to outcry

Finally, in any thoughtful process of deaccessioning is the issue of whether the public interest is better served in assuring that the art remain in the public domain. And this is where a cautionary pause is fundamentally necessary, as it allows time to engage art experts and county residents to ascertain the views of the community at large. After all, a museum is a public, non-taxpaying entity, dedicated to serving the community as prudent custodians of its collections.

And yet from everything we have seen, the Berkshire Museum has turned a complete deaf ear to the public outcry, as not only the community has expressed outrage by this plan, but the museum has been highly criticized and censured by art critics, museum professionals, economists, and national museum organizations.

This has led the museum's leadership to dig its heels in, adapting a stubborn, belligerent stance to the protests, even so far as refusing generous monetary offers to pause this action for further reflection. Apparently notwithstanding pariah status, the museum insists it can still serve the community. Given that standard deaccession procedures have been ethically upended by Berkshire Museum leadership, one cannot be anything but suspicious as many questions remain unanswered.

Lynn Villency Cohen chairs the Collections Committee at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center where she has been a member of the Board of Directors since 2002.




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