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False Dichotomy: Boston Globe’s Deaccession-or-Die Editorial on the Berkshire Museum UPDATED

With surprising disregard for the facts, the Boston Globe‘s editorial writers yesterday flatly (and wrongly) asserted that the Berkshire Museum needs to sell “40 of the museum’s most valuable works” in order to “remain viable.”

There’s no excuse for this ill-informed take on the controversy over the museum’s deplorable deaccessions, given the exhaustive examination of the issues and options in the press and in the courts. (For additional information and perspective, see my 24-and-counting CultureGrrl posts, linked here.)

The Berkshire Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Globe’s editorial—Change or die: Choice is clear for Berkshire Museum—is founded on the false dichotomy embodied in its headline:

What’s better for the Berkshires? Keeping two Norman Rockwell paintings in a Pittsfield museum that’s headed toward financial ruin? Or having a reinvented museum in Pittsfield that’s financially stable because it sold those two paintings, along with other valuable items from its collection?…

Trustees believe that auctioning off their core collection is the path to resurrection. Absent an angel donor [emphasis added] with a big heart and wallet, it’s the right call, even if it’s a gut-wrenching one.

Museum professionals who uphold their field’s ethical standards know that “deaccession or die” is a facile, fallacious mantra: Raising easy cash for debt-reduction or capital projects by selling the objects that you hold in public trust is just kicking the can down the road. It doesn’t remedy the underlying structural deficits and administrative deficiencies infecting the institution.

The defining cautionary tale is what happened to the now homeless National Academy in New York: Its desperation deaccessions only delayed but ultimately did not prevent its implosion—a story that I broke nine years ago, analyzed critically and have continued to follow. A year and a half after it closed, there’s still no news about the museum’s reopening in another location.

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

An “angel donor” for the Berkshire Museum (as mentioned in the Globe editorial) could temporarily end its crisis. But in the absence of a megabucks savior, and there are other more down-to-earth forms of help that could do the trick. Looking for a quick, easy fix (which is now becoming painfully protracted and arduous), the museum has not seen fit to explore the more prudent alternatives.

It rebuffed the joint offer of the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums to assist the museum in “find[ing] other solutions to the institution’s needs without resorting to the selling of works that can never be recovered.” It also unaccountably canceled a planned meeting with Mass Cultural Council (MCC—the state government’s arts agency), which had hoped to discuss “possible future planning and/or capital grants from our Cultural Facilities Fund and [would have offered] help getting access to other state programs like those offered by MassDevelopment, [and] the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development,” in the words of Greg Liakos, the MCC’s communications director.

Also offering help was State Senator Adam Hinds of Pittsfield, chair of the Committee on Tourism, Arts & Cultural Development, who recently proposed bringing the parties together for the “development of alternatives” to the art sales.

Massachusetts State Senator Adam Hinds

The forerunner to the Globe’s gaffe was a similarly ill-informed editorial published in the Pittsfield-based Berkshire Eagle on July 12, when the museum’s New Vision plan was first announced. Thanks in large measure to the tireless reporting in that newspaper by Carrie Saldo and Larry Parnass, the Eagle’s editorial writers eventually gained a deeper understanding of the facts and issues, prompting them to reverse course and strongly endorse the views of the sale opponents in an editorial published this month—Berkshire Museum, Halt the Art Auction.

Following the Eagle’s example, the Boston Globe should belatedly undertake a more comprehensive exploration of the facts and issues surrounding this complicated story. Its editorial writers seem to have gained a clear understanding of the views of the museum’s failed leadership. But they need to examine more closely the reasoning and findings (as reported in the Eagle and on this blog) of the sales’ opponents, their lawyers and the State Attorney General’s office. Crucial to understanding the issues are the court filings by the AG and other complainants (which I linked to and analyzed here, here, here and here).

My informed commentary on this situation, in a seven-minute interview with Al Jazeera English, could also impart a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding this controversy and its aftermath:

Properly informed, the Globe’s editorial writers, like those at the Eagle, should come to recognize that their initial judgment was off-base. Having the courage to admit this, they should publish a new opinion piece on how the Berkshire Museum might address its financial and administrative shortfalls without (in the Globe’s own words) “auctioning off their core collection.”

By running afoul of the Attorney General, the museum has now subjected itself to a highly detailed, intrusive document request that could broaden and prolong the inquiry into the museum’s operations, far beyond the question of whether it has the right to sell the 40 artworks. Instead of a magic bullet, there may be long, painful surgery.

Even if the museum were to reverse course and agree not to sell the works, I’m not sure whether the AG’s investigation could, at this point, be aborted. That said, a cooperative rather than litigious approach to solving the museum’s problems and correcting its missteps is an option worth exploring. Complicating the resolution could be the burden of legal costs already incurred by the museum and the possible penalties to be exacted by Sotheby’s if consigned works, now in legal limbo, are withdrawn.

Norman Rockwell, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” 1950, as seen Nov. 3 at Sotheby’s presale exhibition
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Any way you look at it, this situation has devolved into a miserable mess of the museum’s own making. The only good to come from it may be that other similarly hard-pressed museums will regard this debacle as an unambiguous indication that the deaccession solution is no solution.

The Berkshire Museum should cut its losses by abandoning its assault on the public’s patrimony and seeking to rejoin the community of responsibly run museums. If that requires a change in adminstrators and trustees, it would be a smaller price to pay than losing its Norman Rockwells and other highlights from its collection.

UPDATE—Here, from my Twitter feed, is a late-breaking development:

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