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Berserk in the Berkshires: Museum’s Perverse Plan Underscores Need for Government Regulations

The sad saga of the Berkshire Museum’s descent into madness—its wrongheaded, self-destructive obsession with solving its financial problems by selling off the best works in its collection—reaffirms my long-held conviction that strict laws and/or ironclad government regulations (such as those enacted in 2011 in New York) are urgently needed to protect the public’s patrimony from being squandered by inadequate administrators and untrustworthy trustees.

The Berkshire Museum

As recent history has shown, interventions, censures and sanctions by individual colleagues or professional organizations have no persuasive force over museum directors and boards who are hellbent on deaccessioning collection objects as an easy fix for hard times and poor management. Small, struggling museums don’t really care what the big boys think. Raising easy cash by monetizing art strikes them as more pressing priority than enjoying good relations with better endowed, better managed institutions.

Protest demonstrations by concerned members of the Berkshire Museum’s constituency—with another scheduled this Saturday—may give participants a sense that they are raising local consciousness about the assault on the public’s patrimony. The protesters’ petition (933 signatories at this writing) may prove that there’s widespread concern. But only legal action has a chance of changing the misguided course of Berkshire Museum’s administrators and board.

Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw, Berkshire Museum president

Unless the Massachusetts Attorney General decisively intervenes (which I doubt will happen, despite the fact that she is looking into the situation), the only realistic hope for the “pause” in the rush to auction that is being sought by the protesters is a lawsuit seeking at least a temporary injunction. The litigants would have to argue, with convincing evidence, that the sales would violate explicit donor intent.

The best hope for a legal challenge may lie with the Norman Rockwell Museum and/or those members of the artist’s family who have expressed opposition to the sales in a letter to the Berkshire Eagle. The letter’s lead signatory, Jarvis Rockwell, is the artist’s son.

Jarvis Rockwell
Image from his Facebook page

Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Rockwell Museum, seemed to be trying to lay the legal groundwork when she told Carrie Saldo of the Berkshire Eagle that the artist had donated many of his works “through an irrevocable trust to The Corner House [the original site of the Norman Rockwell Museum], with the understanding that the collection remain together and available to the public forever” (in the words of Saldo’s report).

The Corner House
Photo ©Norman Rockwell Museum

The two Rockwells now headed to Sotheby’s Nov. 13 American art sale had been given by the artist not to The Corner House, but directly to the Berkshire Museum.

Saldo reports:

Had “Shuffleton’s” and “Shaftsbury” not been donated to the Berkshire Museum, Norton Moffatt said she believes they would have been donated to The Corner House, and therefore part of the Norman Rockwell Museum’s collection.

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA

The removal of the two Rockwell works from the sale would scuttle the deaccessioning’s raison d’être—raising an estimated $50 million to “pay down existing debt and establish reserve funds for long-term capital maintenance and to mitigate unforeseen events” (in the words of the museum’s press release). “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and “Blacksmith’s Boy” account for the lion’s share of the anticipated take—some $27-40 million of the $46.55-68.08 million presale estimate range for 36 of the 40 Berkshire Museum consignments. (Four sculptures, including two Calders, do not yet have published estimates.)

When I recently asked spokespersons for the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums whether there has been (or will be) any follow-up to their July 25 joint statement deploring the deaccessions, they told me that they were “continuing to encourage the museum to seek other options to their current plan and continue to offer our support in that,” in the works of AAMD’s spokesperson.

Good luck with that. Van Shields, director of the Berkshire Museum, immediately blew off the two professional groups and hasn’t changed his stance since. The implied threat of censure and sanctions looms.

Van Shields

Meanwhile, in the continuing saga of the Berkshire Museum’s isolation from the professional museum community, another door has just closed: In Public Trust Bust—the first of my eight (now nine) posts on the Berkshire Museum fiasco—I foresaw that the museum’s deaccession decision would run afoul of the guidelines for Smithsonian Affiliations, to which the Pittsfield museum then belonged.

Now, as reported yesterday by Amanda Drane of the Berkshire Eagle, “the Berkshire Museum has ended its relationship with the Smithsonian Institution as the result of the museum’s decision this summer to sell off some of its art as a way to bolster its endowment and fund an extensive renovation.”

As I wrote in my initial post, the Smithsonian Affiliations Policy stipulates that “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.”

Here’s the priciest work from the collection that is targeted to be “treated as an asset” at Sotheby’s:

Norman Rockwell, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” 1950
Presale estimate: $20-30 million

The termination of the Smithsonian partnership will deprive the Berkshire Museum’s visitors of access to that institution’s collections (including loans and traveling exhibitions), educational programming and research. Spark!Lab, which opened in October 2014 and closed two years later, was a Smithsonian-created “hands-on, creative laboratory that engages children and families in the process of innovation,” in the words of the Berkshire Museum’s description.

In anticipation of Spark!Lab’s opening, Lesley Beck, the Berkshire Museum’s director of communications, had said this to Joe Durwin of

Here we are, Berkshire Museum here in Pittsfield, Mass., having these tremendous connections with the Smithsonian. Our affiliation is really blooming into a really strong relationship…

…or maybe not.

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