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Berkshire Debacle: The Attorney General Caves

Read it and weep.

The Massachusetts Attorney General has acceded to a plan for the Berkshire Museum to sell as many of its 40 deaccessioned works as necessary to come up with the $55 million that it says it needs for endowment and capital projects. 

Already spoken for is the most valuable and beloved of those works, Norman Rockwell‘s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” (below). According to the Complaint for Equitable Relief filed by the Berkshire Museum trustees today in Supreme Judicial Court of Suffolk County, an unidentified nonprofit museum has made an unspecified offer for that prize painting, promising to display it prominently and to lend it to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, for 18-24 months. 

  
“Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” 1950

In a tweet earlier today, just after the announcement, I had speculated that the anonymous enabler of this deplorable disposal might be Crystal Bridges, which had famously scooped up the New York Public Library’s prized Asher B. Durand, “Kindred Spirits,” and had bought a half share of Fisk University’s Stieglitz Collection, notwithstanding donor Georgia O’Keeffe’s written no-sale stipulation. (On that one, Tennessee’s AG valiantly fought the proposed sale and lost.)

Others have suggested that the proposed mystery buyer might be filmmaker George Lucas‘ planned Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, whose founding president is Don Bacigalupi, the former director of Crystal Bridges.

The Berkshire Museum’s originally announced goal of raising $50 million has now been bumped to $55 million, “in light of the seven months of ongoing operations and expenses without a capital infusion since July” (while the sales were being delayed by litigation). The museum will seek court permission to sell additional works from the remaining 39 deaccessions, in the event that the net amount realized by the museum for “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” is less than $55 million. All sales are to be handled via Sotheby’s. 

The Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums immediately shot off a joint statement, which concluded with this lament:

While the negotiated agreement with the Berkshire Museum may satisfy legal standards, it falls far short of ethical standards and best practices for museums. This is indeed a sad day for the arts community in the Berkshires and the museum community across the country.

Save the Art, the ad hoc citizens group opposing the sales, stated this:

The “compromise” agreement between Attorney General Maura Healey and the Berkshire Museum is flawed. It flouts all standards of museum best practices and fails to honor the Berkshire Museum’s duty to the community’s cultural past or its future generations. By leaving intact the current Museum leadership, despite clear evidence of poor management and bad stewardship, the accord does nothing to protect the collection from future sales. 

The deaccession of the Museum’s finest art treasures strikes at the heart of the principles of public trust, and sets a precedent that will undermine cultural and historical institutions in the Commonwealth and across the country. Save the Art-Save the Museum will issue a more detailed statement after we have studied the agreement. 

More to come.

an ArtsJournal blog