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New Yorker’s Bad Role Model for Berkshire Museum: NY Historical Society’s “Responsible” Sales

In his well-intentioned but flawed Oct. 4 New Yorker article, The Lost Masterpieces of Norman Rockwell Country, Felix Salmon demonstrates more understanding of museum ethics than the leaders of the embattled Berkshire Museum possess. But that’s not quite enough.

When a conscientious journalist doesn’t quite “get it,” those who do—including the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums—clearly need to do a better job in educating the public about the thorny issues surrounding the sales of objects from museum collections.

As CultureGrrl readers know, I agree with the overall thrust of Salmon’s article: We have both written that the Berkshire Museum’s deaccession decision was ill-conceived and cloaked in undue secrecy. He was kind enough to link to my suggestion that “a win-win collaboration could transform the Pittsfield pit stop into a well-functioning offshoot of the distinguished Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA).” (That said, temporary interim leadership not only at WCMA, but also, as I later learned, at Williams College, may render my floated notion dead-in-the-water.)

Salmon’s apparent misconceptions about museum ethics in general and about the 1995 deaccessions by the New-York Historical Society in particular undermine his arguments: He dignifies the N-YHS’s deplorable disposals at Sotheby’s as a role model for “relatively responsible deaccessioning” [emphasis added], saying that the jettisoned material had “little historical importance.”

Not really…

“The Triumph of Fame,” Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi (called Scheggia), c. 1449
Commemorative tray celebrating birth of Lorenzo de’ Medici, purchased from the N-YHS sale by the Metropolitan Museum

When I covered those sell-offs for the Wall Street Journal (New-York Historical Society Sells New York Heritage, Jan. 19, 1995), I blasted them as “a low point in cultural stewardship.” The Society had originally intended to monetize its holdings five years earlier, but, as I noted, the outcry from museum professionals was so great that it backed off.”

The society candidly admitted that it would use some of its sale proceeds to spruce up galleries, pay curators, collateralize a loan and help eliminate its operating deficit. That’s a clear violation of the written ethical guidelines for deaccessioning, as set forth by the field’s leading professional organizations. There’s nothing “relatively responsible” about it.

Salmon misleadingly gives N-YHS credit for having its deaccession plan “cleared…in advance” by the Association of Art Museum Directors. AAMD states in his guidelines (p. 21) that sales proceeds should be applied only to purchases of other works for the collection.

Here’s what AAMD actually did say about the N-YHS’s disposal proposal, in an official statement issued to the Society’s leadership by the Association’s then president, Robert Bergman, on Mar. 9, 1993, one week after AAMD’s representatives met with Society officials:

We strongly urge the Society to limit the use of proceeds from the sales of works of art to the purchase of works appropriate to its new, more narrowly defined mission and to avoid any permanent policy that earmarks proceeds from disposition of works of art for purposes other than the replenishment of the collection [emphasis added].

Also down on the N-YHS’s plans was Edward Able, executive director of the American Alliance of Museums (then known at the American Association of Museums). He “made it clear in an interview that the [New-York Historical] Society’s announced plans for use of the sale proceeds far exceeded the direct object-preservation activities contemplated by his organization in its guidelines,” as I reported in the WSJ. AAM’s guidelines state that deaccession proceeds should be used only for acquisitions or direct care of collections.

Salmon is correct in noting that New York’s then attorney general, G. Oliver Koppell, allowed the sale to proceed, with a proviso that “qualifying” public institutions in the state be given the right to preempt the winning bidder on any item auctioned by the N-YHS. Such institutions were given a discount off the hammer price and up to five years to pay. That’s how the Metropolitan Museum was able to purchase its Medici plate, pictured above, which had been on loan to it from the Society.

We still await word on the results of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey‘s review of the possible assault on her state’s public patrimony. This is the Berkshire Museum’s “Medici plate,” now awaiting auction on Nov. 13 at Sotheby’s:

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

For someone who, like me, covered the N-YHS sell-offs, the Berkshire Museum’s misbegotten plan is a sorry case of déjà vu: Van Shields, director of the Berkshire Museum, appears to be redefining his institution’s mission to focus more on natural history and science than on art. Similarly, Betsy Gotbaum, director of the N-YHS at the time of its disposals, claimed that her art-rich institution was “not a museum of art; we are a historical society.” There would be less emphasis, she said, on scholarly connoisseurship and more on informing general audiences about “how New York got to be New York.”

Happily, a subsequent N-YHS director, American art historian Linda Ferber, redirected the focus towards art, authoring a sumptuous catalogue in conjunction with the museum’s comprehensive display of its superlative Hudson River School collection.

Here it is, plucked from my own bookshelf:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Like Salmon, the Berkshire Museum’s leaders need to bone up on the responsibilities of holding collections in the public trust and of not using the excuse of mission creep to justify jettisoning important holdings. In direct response to the Berkshire Museum situation, AAM recently issued a pithy list of eight Questions and Answers about Selling Objects from the Collection, intended to “help people cut through the jargon and understand the issues.”

That’s a good start, but it’s not enough merely to put it out there: It needs to be widely disseminated and promoted, so it gets to the people who urgently need it—not just in Pittsfield, but around the country. Trustees and museum officials need to be trained.

The bedrock principle is this: Hocking the treasures gathered by one’s professional predecessors in order to raise easy cash for operations, capital expenses and/or debt reduction is not (in Salmon’s words) “relatively responsible deaccessioning.” It’s irresponsible management.

Here’s what Keith Christiansen, the Metropolitan Museum’s curator of European paintings (now veteran chairman of that department) wrote in an opinion piece for New York Newsday on Dec. 7, 1994, even while his institution was hoping to purchase the Medici plate:

The intention of the donors [to the N-YHS] was that these works become part of the patrimony of New York City, not the cashbox for a poorly run institution….It should be stated emphatically that what the society intends to put on the auction block on Jan. 12 [1995] is not simply the deadwood that has accumulated over the years, but the proudest remnants of what was, historically, one of the most significant collections of paintings in the city.

Note to Van Shields: Don’t make the grievous mistake of replaying that N-YHS scenario. Heed Keith, before it’s too late.

Keith Christiansen at the Met
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

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