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“Public Trust” Bust: Berkshire Museum to Jettison 40 Works (including 2 artist-donated Rockwells) UPDATED

More on this here, here and here.

Why should it matter if the Berkshires lose two major paintings by Norman Rockwell, when there are already so many in the vicinity?

That mindless mindset seems to be driving the deplorable decision by the Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA, to monetize, in a series of Sotheby’s auctions, some 40 artworks in its collection, including Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop.”

The Berkshire Museum

Astonishingly (and not disclosed in the announcement), the donor to the museum of the two Rockwells was the artist himself. In response to my written queries, Van Shields, the museum’s executive director, told me that there were “no restrictions on his gifts. We are grateful to Norman Rockwell for his gifts that will help ensure the future of this beloved community institution.”

It’s highly unlikely that the artist would have found that gratitude gratifying, And I doubt he ever imagined that “restrictions on his gifts” would be necessary.

The $50 million in anticipated proceeds from the 40 deaccessions, added to $10 million being sought through a fundraising campaign, will go to endowment (“at least $40 million”) and to “pay down existing debt and establish reserve funds for long-term capital maintenance and to mitigate unforeseen events,” according to the press release announcing the museum’s $60-million reinvention plan. The 40 works will be scattered among Sotheby’s sales of Impressionist/modern and contemporary art, 19th-century European paintings, American art, Old Master Paintings and Chinese works of art.

Here’s the prize lot—a Rockwell described by art historian Karal Ann Marling, in her 1997 book on the artist, as a “masterpiece [that] is also an exercise in making ordinary things profoundly mysterious through the manipulation of light and space”:

Norman Rockwell, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” 1950
Berkshire Museum

The museum’s “reinvention” could trigger intervention from the American Alliance of Museums, to which the Berkshire Museum belongs. AAM’s Code of Ethics says that deaccession proceeds must be used for acquisitions or direct care of collections. The code of the Association of Art Museum Directors (to which the Berkshire Museum does not belong) states that proceeds from sales of objects from museum collections must be used exclusively to fund acquisitions.

Founded in 1903, the art, history and science museum owns an eclectic 40,000-object collection that includes “Wally the stegosaurus,” an Egyptian mummy, a full-size wigwam and Calder mobiles. [UPDATE: A previous version of this post said the Calders were not being sold. But two of his 1932 mobiles are on the hit list, released 7/25.]

Here’s the museum’s rendering of what one of the “reinvented” spaces may look like, with “new interpretive techniques [and] cutting-edge technology and a fresh perspective that aims to extract contemporary relevance from historical artifacts. Static museum galleries will be transformed into active teaching laboratories,” in the words of the “reinvention” press release:

“We are, in an effect, the Smithsonian of the Berkshires,” director Shields recently boasted to WAMC, Northeast Public Radio. Or maybe not, given his museum’s disregard for the Smithsonian’s own collection policies.

The Berkshire Museum belongs to Smithsonian Affiliations, which lends Smithsonian objects to other museums and “exposes new audiences to the Smithsonian’s collections, educational programming, and research.” According to the Smithsonian Affiliations Policy, “affiliates that maintain collections must do so in a manner that is consistent with applicable law and professional ethics and do not treat their collections as assets for purposes of reporting on their financial statements.” (The reason why most museums don’t report collections as financial assets is that the objects are held in public trust and are not to be monetized to defray capital costs, operating expenses or debts.)

“As part of our planning, the board and staff gave thorough consideration to AAM’s and AAMD’s guidelines and their possible response,” Shields wrote in answer to my queries. “In the end, we decided that our obligation was to serve the interests of our community.”

Whether those interests are best served by flouting professional standards remains to be seen. The possible negative consequences, including ostracism by other museums, were mentioned in this July 15 tweet by Kevin Murphy, American art curator at another museum in the Berkshires—the Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA (which will soon be seeking a new director):

The works to be monetized “have been deemed to be not essential to the museum’s refreshed mission,” according to the Berkshire Museum’s press release. In a glowing editorial—Berkshire Museum’s Ambitious Reboot—the Berkshire Eagle advanced the nonsensical notion that “realistically, with the Norman Rockwell Museum mere miles away [in Stockbridge], Rockwells at a Pittsfield museum are redundant anyway.”

The specious concept of the “redundancy” of unique works of art is one of the lamest excuses for raiding a collection to make up for the failure of museum administrators and trustees to devise and implement a sustainable financial plan.

Speaking of which, Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Rockwell Museum and a childhood habitué of the Berkshire Museum, yesterday posted an eloquent op-ed piece in the Berkshire Eagle that forcefully argued for a “reevaluation of the decision to deaccession” and directly dismissed the “redundancy” theory.

Laurie Norton Moffatt, director, Norman Rockwell Museum

Moffatt wrote:

“Shuffleton’s Barbershop” is not, as has been stated, a redundant Rockwell, a footnote to the superb collection down the road at the Norman Rockwell Museum. It is, rather, a unique masterpiece and one of Rockwell’s very best paintings that he gifted to the Berkshire Museum and the people of Berkshire County for education and enjoyment.

A CultureGrrl reader had tipped me off that works by major Hudson River School painters were among those to be sold down the river (shades of the National Academy and the New York Public Library). Moffatt’s opposition op-ed confirmed it:

Although the list of art works targeted for auction has not been made public, other works that the museum plans to send to the auction block include exemplars of the Hudson River School (among them Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt).

Writing to me just 20 minutes before Moffatt’s piece hit the web, Shields restated his case for his museum’s plan:

“Our collections strategy is to support our interpretive plan as an interdisciplinary museum emphasizing science and history. These works [the expendable 40] do not support that strategy,” he told me, in response to my queries. That said, the museum’s homepage describes its areas of focus as “Science, History and the Arts” [emphasis added]. Shields assured me that “artworks will be displayed throughout the museum in our new core exhibitions, on a basis appropriate to their conservation needs” and that future acquisitions will be made of artworks “that support our interpretive plan.”

But the implementation of that plan runs contrary to the Berkshire Museum’s own collections philosophy, as described on its Collections FAQs webpage:

As museum professionals, we hold objects in the public trust. For that reason, we must think not only about the value of the object to our collection, but also about whether or not we will have the space and resources to properly protect it for future generations. [Emphases added.]

“Future generations” of museum donors (including artists like Rockwell) may now hesitate to entrust objects to a museum that feels free to “reinvent” itself by disposing of previously desired objects that it had “properly protected.”

Van Shields, executive director, Berkshire Museum

I don’t think anyone is fooled by the museum’s assertion that it no longer needs its 40 cast-offs because they are “not essential to the museum’s refreshed mission.” (Mission revision was also used to justify the widely criticized Albright-Knox disposals of 2007.) If a change of mission, not financial exigencies, were truly the motivating factor, the Berkshire Museum could have easily found other institutions in the area that would gratefully receive many (if not most) of the unwanted objects and preserve them for the public benefit.

Clearly, this purge is about raising big bucks. Even so, area museums could at least be given the right of first refusal at favorable prices. That wouldn’t maximize sale proceeds, but it could mitigate the loss to the public’s patrimony. That said, raising money at the expense of sister institutions is always a dicey strategy.

The soon-to-vanish Rockwells were among the “approximately 40 works of art from the 16th-century to the present” featured by the Berkshire Museum in What’s the Story?, the 2008 display celebrating the reopening of the museum after extensive renovation. Do those 40 works roughly correspond to the 40 that have now been targeted for disposal through Sotheby’s? Stay tuned.

As Moffatt mentioned, the Berkshire Museum has so far declined to disclose what it’s selling, aside from the Rockwells. But Shields revealed to me that “we plan to publish the full list early next week.”

The public has a right to know (and to mourn for) what it stands to lose. Soon we can.

UPDATE: In response to my separate queries, the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors replied identically: “We’re in contact with the museum’s leadership to better understand their plans, before taking any further action.”

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