I predicted in my previous post that the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums were “likely to exert pushback” against the Berkshire Museum’s deplorable deaccession plans. Now they have, after communicating with the errant museum’s leadership earlier today via teleconference.
This just in from AAM and AAMD. While they’ve collaborated on other issues, this is, to my knowledge, the first time they’ve joined forces for a joint statement [emphases added]:
The American Alliance of Museums (AAM), an organization representing the entire scope of the museum community, and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), an organization representing 243 directors of North America’s leading art museums, are deeply opposed to the Berkshire Museum’s plans to sell works from its collection to provide funds for its endowment, to make capital investments, and to pay for daily operations.
One of the most fundamental and long-standing principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset. This prohibition is upheld by both AAMD and by AAM, which sets accreditation standards for art museums, science centers, natural history museums, and historical museums.
AAM and AAMD are communities of museum professionals founded to support museums, large and small, and the diverse communities they serve. Actions such as those being proposed by the Berkshire Museum undermine the public’s trust in the mission of nonprofit museums—and museums’ ability to collect, teach, study, and preserve works for their communities now and into the future.
Two of the works the Museum is currently planning to sell are important paintings by Norman Rockwell, given by the artist to the people of Pittsfield. These works were entrusted by Rockwell to the Museum for safe-keeping and to share with the public. The other works proposed for sale are by many noted artists from America and around the world. If these works are indeed sold, it would be an irredeemable loss for the present and for generations to come.
Selling from the collection for purposes such as capital projects or operating funds not only diminishes the core of works available to the public, it erodes the future fundraising ability of museums nationwide. Such a sale sends a message to existing and prospective donors that museums can raise funds by selling parts of their collection, thereby discouraging not only financial supporters, who may feel that their support isn’t needed, but also donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls. That cuts to the heart not only of the Berkshire Museum, but every museum in the United States.
The Berkshire Museum contends that in order to be a good steward of their institution they must be a poor steward of their collection. We believe those two responsibilities are not mutually exclusive. We are sympathetic to the financial challenges museums of all sizes may face. And we are heartened by the many creative solutions that museums across the country have developed to meet those challenges and uphold the professional standards of the field.
We have been in communication with the Berkshire Museum leadership and we continue to hope that they will reconsider their decision. We stand ready to assist, in any way we are able, to find other solutions to the institution’s needs without resorting to the selling of works that can never be recovered.
Whether the mouths from which these strong words issued will also prove to have teeth remains to be seen. The Berkshire Museum is a member of AAM, which could rescind that membership. But although the statement notes that AAM “sets accreditation standards for art museums, science centers, natural history museums, and historical museums,” the Berkshire Museum has not undergone the accreditation process. Therefore, AAM cannot use the threat of de-accreditation to persuade the museum to change course.
Although not a member of AAMD, that organization could theoretically subject the Berkshire Museum to the same punitive action that hobbled the National Academy—calling on its member museums “to suspend any loans of works of art to and any collaborations on exhibitions” with the renegade that in 2008 sold an important Church and Gifford to fund programs, operations, fundraising initiatives and gallery improvements. As we have seen, that expedient didn’t solve the now homeless Academy Museum’s serious underlying problems.
The statement by AAM and AAMD cited the Berkshire Museum’s sale of its two artist-donated Rockwells as being particularly egregious. But in a tweet today, Kevin Murphy, American art curator at the Williams College Museum of Art, highlighted other works on the hit list that are of crucial importance to the region:
— Kevin M. P. Murphy (@kmpmurphy) July 25, 2017
I have a query in to the Berkshire Museum about its reaction to the AAMD/AAM drubbing. But I suspect the Berkshire Eagle will (properly) get first call. If I know more, you’ll know more.
UPDATE: The ball (or blackball?) is now in AAMD’s and AAM’s court. The Berkshire Museum has issued this statement, essentially defying the admonitions of the two leading professional associations for museums in the US:
We have been gratified by the outpouring of support from the full spectrum of our community for the New Vision recently unveiled by the Berkshire Museum. Through an extensive, two-year planning process, the vision was formed in collaboration with our community and in direct response to the needs and opportunities of our region.
The board and staff of the Berkshire Museum gave full consideration to the guidelines on deaccessioning published by the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors, and their response to our strategy is not unexpected. But we believe it is the right strategy for the future of the Berkshire Museum and for the future of Pittsfield.
UPDATE 2: The Association of Museum Curators has added its voice to the chorus of condemnation.