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Save the Forsaken 40! Protest March Tomorrow by Opponents of Berkshire Museum’s Art Sales UPDATED

Opponents of the Berkshire Museum’s planned sale of 40 artworks from its collection plan to stage a protest march tomorrow (Saturday), 9 a.m.-noon, on the sidewalk in front of the Berkshire Museum, South Street, Pittsfield, MA.

Yesterday evening, Leslie Ferrin of Ferrin Contemporary (a gallery for contemporary ceramics) told me this about the plan:

We hope to engage the Berkshire community, first by simply letting them know that we exist, and welcome all who’d like to participate in the protest to join in. We are planning subsequent protests for the remainder of this month and beyond (details TBD.)

Leslie Ferrin
Photo by John Polak

Ferrin’s gallery is situated on the campus of MASS MoCA in North Adams, whose director, Joseph Thompson, recently wrote an opinion piece for the Berkshire Eagle supporting the deaccession decision of his colleague, Van Shields, director of the Berkshire Museum. It’s worth noting that MASS MoCA has no permanent collection, which perhaps helps to explain Thompson’s lack of regard for the Berkshire Museum’s stewardship duties.

Joseph Thompson, director of MASS MoCA, inside the “Velimir Chlebnikov” pavilion at his museum’s long-term Anselm Kiefer installation
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In a principled but unusual break from collegial solidarity, Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum in nearby Stockbridge, was an early opponent of the sales, speaking out forcefully several days before the issuance by the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums of a joint statement taking the Berkshire Museum to task for violating professional standards against monetizing important artworks for purposes other than acquisitions or care of collections.

Members of the artist’s family have joined Moffatt in publicly deploring the sale of “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” one of two important Rockwells given to the Berkshire Museum by the artist himself:

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

The ad hoc protest group last night released this statement:

We believe the museum’s decision to part with the crown jewels [my link, not theirs] of its collection reflects a failure of process and vision. We want more transparency from the Berkshire Museum going forward and would like a public forum with community members and Berkshire Museum officials in the near future to discuss alternatives to their current plans.

We feel the numbers presented by the Berkshire Museum don’t make sense and would like a full financial disclosure made public by the museum, as has been requested by The Berkshire Eagle [my link, not theirs] and others. Most of all, we care very much about the Berkshire Museum and want it to succeed without resorting to selling the heart of its collection.

The importance of those “expendable” works was recently underscored by Richard Rand, former senior curator at the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown (now associate director for collections at the Getty Museum). As reported by the indispensable Carrie Saldo of the Berkshire Eagle, Rand described the Forsaken 40 as “the best and consequently the most valuable in the [Berkshire Museum’s] collection.” According to Saldo’s report, Rand had “served on its [the Berkshire Museum’s] collections committee, and in recent years helped to reinstall its paintings gallery.” So he knows that collection well.

Richard Rand at the Clark in 2014 with Carpeaux’s “Daphnis and Chloë,” 1874
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In another article, Saldo noted that “Shields said he and museum trustees asked two questions while selecting what artwork to auction: ‘Is it mission critical?’ and ‘Is it necessary for interpretive goals?'”

Perhaps the most crucial criterion for deaccession selection was candidly acknowledged by the museum in its Frequently Asked Questions about its future plans:

Why has the Museum chosen to sell this specific list of 40 items?

The board analyzed our full collection from every aspect and tried to find the solution that would both fund an endowment that would secure the Museum’s future, and result in the smallest number of items being removed from our collection [emphasis added]. This is not an easy choice to make, but the Board of Trustees is confident that the 40,000 objects that will remain are the best suited for the Museum’s new vision.

To deaccession “the smallest number of items,” the selloff’s masterminds had to cherry-pick the ones with the highest estimated market value—a list that would closely correlate with the works of highest quality and importance.

If part of the museum’s mission is still (as Shields has said) to display art “throughout the museum in our new core exhibitions” and to make future art acquisitions “that support our interpretive plan,” then keeping, rather than monetizing, the cream of the collection should have been a no-brainer. Instead, the rush to auction at Sotheby’s seems brainless.

While Shields continues to stonewall requests that he reconsider his raid on the collection built by his predecessors, his opponents, seeking to discredit him, have dredged up a report on controversies that erupted during his 15-year gig as director of the Culture and Heritage Museums, in York County, SC (near Charlotte), from which he resigned in 2011.

He became the Berkshire Museum’s director in September of that year.

Van Shields

UPDATE—Here’s a photo from the protest demonstration:

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