Our Opinion: Berkshire Museum, halt the art auction

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Imagine if Berkshire County didn't care about its museum.

If anything, this season of tumult for the Berkshire Museum has proved the folks in these hills very much care for their oldest museum, established by Zenas Crane Jr., a son of the Berkshires whose curiosity about nature and art created a "window on the world" through which this community has been looking for 114 years.

On July 12, the museum's leadership announced a plan to sell 40 artworks to fund a $60 million New Vision plan that builds a massive endowment and renovates the building.

Rolling out the New Vision, the museum rang alarm bells it hadn't sounded before. Two years ago, when the museum announced it was entering a process to create a master plan for the future, it did so declaring publicly that its financial picture was healthy. It emerged from that secretive process promoting a dire narrative that the museum would close in six to eight years, but that its $60 million New Vision would save it. The museum's cry for help was a startling turnabout.

At the time of the New Vision announcement, The Eagle's editorial board supported the museum's plan, believing that course necessary to ensure its survival and redefine its purpose.

But since then, reporting and investigation by this newspaper have raised serious questions about just how distressed is the museum's financial situation. We now know the New Vision has been from the start a fait accompli, a process that composed a grand, but flawed, solution for a simpler problem. Indeed, the attorney general's office believes this deaccessioning warrants further legal review.

The deaccessioning is not a survival plan; it's a perilous gambit.

In polite terms, the New Vision is nebulous; the museum has not articulated this plan in sufficient detail. Outside of a few renderings of what the museum might look like in the New Vision, this particular venture has not inspired the confidence to justify either the $20 million renovation or the $40 million endowment, even if the sale was an acceptable path.

All of this has caused us to revise our original endorsement of the Berkshire Museum plan. We urge the trustees to halt the sale of the artwork.

The extent of the proposed sale — including two Norman Rockwell paintings, a significant collection of Hudson River School paintings, including works by Albert Bierstadt, William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Frederic Church, as well as two sculptures by Alexander Calder — set off a vibrant discussion of its propriety and necessity, much of which has appeared in this newspaper. The Massachusetts Cultural Council, under the leadership of Executive Director Anita Walker, calls this sale "a violation of the museum's public trust." The Berkshire Museum's deaccessioning plan cost it long-term relationships with well-respected national arts organizations, including the Smithsonian.

Experts, including those at the Cultural Council, have disputed the severity of the museum's proclaimed financial distress. Undoubtedly, the museum could use millions more dollars to add to its endowment, but the method chosen to get this money resembles throwing out the baby to save the bath water.

Fundraising is difficult, but necessary and achievable: The museum already has $5 million pledged toward its renovation, an amount experts say is at least what the museum needs to recompose its endowment. Offers — real offers — of expertise and financial safety nets have been made to the museum to clear a different path forward without having to sell the art. The trustees rejected them.

The long-term success of the museum can only be assured by the continued support of the larger Berkshire community, and for that to occur, the community needs transparency from museum leaders.

The intense public attention now being paid to the museum might prove to be an unexpected benefit — provided the sale does not come to fruition. The museum has time to explore various forms of fundraising, both conventional and innovative, that might obviate, or substantially reduce, the need to sell its art to build an endowment and carry out a renovation. The spirited debate that has occurred might assist such fundraising.

The brief filed Monday by the Massachusetts attorney general's office finds clear fault with how the museum's leaders have handled this sale. The attorney general's office has joined a pair of lawsuits calling for a halt to the sale. In its filing, the attorney general's office cited its "significant concerns about the board's decision to sell the 40 pieces of art that warrant further consideration and investigation." In contrast, the museum leadership continues to assert its "strong legal grounds to move forward and secure the future of the Berkshire Museum as an invaluable asset to the educational, cultural and economic life of our community."

One would be hard-pressed to find anyone in this county who doesn't want a secure future for the Berkshire Museum. That's not the disagreement; the argument is over the path being proposed.

If the Berkshire Museum's best art is sold under this cloud of questions, it will be gone from the community forever. The decision is irreversible.

Today, a Berkshire Superior Court judge will hear arguments for and against a pause to the sale as the clock ticks toward a Nov. 13 auction date for the first batch of artworks. The decision will be eagerly awaited on both sides.

The Berkshire Museum's deaccessioning breaks a covenant with the citizens of Berkshire County. The Berkshire Museum — and this collection of art that rivals the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. — is this community's "window on the world," as the Berkshire Museum itself puts it. It's a window that must not be broken.


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