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Memo to Berkshire Museum: Homeless National Academy Suspends Its School, Slashes Price for Its Posh Digs

The Berkshire Museum’s self-proclaimed deaccession-or-die desperation measure has triggered traumatic flashbacks to the National Academy’s failed attempt to secure its future by selling off important works by Frederic Edwin Church and Sanford Robinson Gifford—a story I broke and closely followed on CultureGrrl.

In light of the widely condemned, deplorable developments in Pittsfield, it’s high time we checked on how things are going in New York at the venerable but tottering National Academy Museum and School.

National Academy’s Fifth Avenue Entrance
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

For the Berkshire Museum, this should be a cautionary tale:

When last we looked, more than a year ago, the unsoundness of the National Academy’s deaccession-or-die strategy was painfully obvious: Still financially floundering, it was trying to sell its historic home, with plans to “establish an unrestricted endowment ensuring the perpetuity of the institution.”

In the interim, the Academy said it would put its 7,700-object collection in storage, with art loans made available to other institutions.

National Academy’s salon-style hang from its permanent collection, as seen on May 7, 2016, the day before its galleries closed to the public
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

So far, the real-estate gambit hasn’t worked: The Academy’s three contiguous buildings, previously listed by Cushman & Wakefield, are still on the market, with a reduced asking price that amounts to a fire sale—$78.5 million for the three, compared to the original $120-million offering. Under the radar of most cultural journalists, this development was reported in March by Curbed NY, which noted that the buildings were being offered through Corcoran Group Real Estate “as three separate listings, which can be purchased individually or as a package deal” (here, here and here).

Yikes! They’ve “virtually staged” it:

Image of “living room” from Corcoran Group Real Estate’s listings website

Here’s the same room, when it was installed, not with cushy sofas, but with the last National Academy show to appear there—Miriam Schapiro, a Visionary (closed May 8, 2016).

A TV screen has now (in the rendering) replaced the painting over the fireplace:

Here is what’s now being called the property’s “master bedroom”:

Image of “master bedroom” from Corcoran Group Real Estate’s listings website

Two of the Academy’s buildings are being offered as townhouse residences; the third as “commercial.” One thing’s for certain: Major art patron Archer Milton Huntington didn’t have those purposes in mind when he donated his private abode to the National Academy in the 1940s. I assume that the Academy’s board has cleared this deviation from donor intent with the NYS Attorney General’s office, before attempting this liquidation. (When I asked in March 2016 if the disposal would require the AG’s approval, a museum spokesperson told me: “The National Academy will go to the Attorney General’s office at the appropriate time.”)

Meanwhile, the Academy’s school, which has continued to operate, revealed on May 9 that it planned to “go on hiatus.” Classes will end Aug. 5; students will have until Aug. 11 to “pick up any wet paintings left to dry.”

According to the Academy’s announcement:

The National Academy has remained committed to keeping its school open for its students and faculty ever since, but must now prepare for its move to a new location. During the school’s hiatus, The Academy is partnering with local art schools to facilitate the transfer of full-time students to continue their studies without interruption. These include The Art Students League, the New York Studio School, and the MFA Studio Art Program at Montclair State University.

Nothing is said about what will happen to the school’s faculty or to Maurizio Pellegrin, its director.

Meg Blackburn, executive vice president of Fitz & Co., the communications and marketing firm engaged by the Academy to field pesky press inquiries, responded to my detailed questions about the Academy’s current status with the following non-answer:

All the information we have to date about the National Academy is on the website.

Below are the questions that I sent to Meg, as well as to the following officials listed on the Academy’s website: Director Maura Reilly; Director of Collections and Curatorial Affairs Diana Thompson; President Bruce Fowle).

Maura Reilly

1) Have you now found a new location to which the school and museum will move, and, if so, when will that move take place? If not, why is the school closing now?

2) Has your Fifth Avenue property now been sold? If so, for how much and to whom? To what kinds of uses will the property be put?

3) Can you please update me on whether there have been loans of objects to other institutions while the museum has been closed? If so, which objects and to whom?

4) What other museum activities have been ongoing (i.e., restoring and cataloging the collection)?

5) What’s going to happen to the school’s faculty? Have they been laid off? Are they on paid or unpaid sabbatical?

6) Is there anything else that you think I should know about the National Academy’s current situation?

I’ll update, if and when I get answers to some (or all) of these queries. The Berkshire Eagle has its own unanswered questions regarding the Berkshire Museum’s plans.

In the meantime, we can only hope that the officials and board members of the Berkshire Museum will take time to study the lessons to be learned from the National Academy debacle, putting its ill-conceived rush to Sotheby’s on hiatus.

In a joint statement addressed last week to the Berkshire Museum, the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors offered 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.”

Berkshire Museum director Van Shields would do well to take them up on their offer.

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