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Berkshire Museum’s Murky “Transparency”: Parsing the Half-Truths in Its “Open Letter”

If this is transparency, we can only wonder what opacity looks like.

The Berkshire Museum today posted an open letter to its community that is intended to show its “commitment to transparency, cooperation, outreach,” according to an email from its spokesperson that hit my inbox late this afternoon.

The Berkshire Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But the “open letter” was less than transparent in describing what happened to the priciest of the museum’s deaccessions:

“Shuffleton’s Barbershop” by Norman Rockwell is on its way back to the Berkshires, to the Norman Rockwell Museum, where it will be on public display. We pulled the painting from auction and agreed to accept a significantly lower price through a private sale [emphasis added] that keeps this important work in the public eye. Twelve other works were sold, including two acquired by nonprofits where they will be on public display.

Norman Rockwell, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” 1950
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

What the letter fails to explain is that “Shuffleton’s” is “on its way back to the Berkshires” for only a brief time. As had been previously announced, it was purchased for an undisclosed price by the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles, which will place it on temporary loan at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, for a period of 18-24 months, while the new museum, founded by filmmaker George Lucas, is being built. After that, bye-bye Berkshires.

Today’s “transparent” communication was the first time, to my knowledge, that the museum admitted it had settled for a “significantly lower price through a private sale” of “Shuffleton’s.”

“Significantly lower” than what? Presumably, lower than Sotheby’s presale estimate of $20-30 million. If the Lucas Museum paid less than $20 million, it’s hard to understand how the Berkshire Museum had held out hope that it would meet its $55-million goal through the sales of “Shuffleton’s” plus the first 13 works to be offered for sale at Sotheby’s. Those lots had been estimated to bring $20.17 million to $28.9 million. To achieve the museum’s goal of $55 million, “Shuffleton’s” would have had to have garnered about $26.1 million to $34.83 million (as I previously wrote here). So any hope of achieving the $55-million goal through the first 13 offerings at Sotheby’s was delusional.

But wait, there’s more: The Berkshire Museum’s spokesperson noted in her email that two of the deaccessioned works (including “Shuffleton’s”) were “acquired in private sales that will keep both works in public view [emphasis added].” But the other one, Frederic Edwin Church’s “Valley of Santa Isabel New Granada,” 1875, managed to stay in the public domain only because it failed to sell at auction. Only then was it sold privately to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

PAFA’s director, Brooke Davis Anderson, told Larry Parnass of The Berkshire Eagle that Berkshire County residents visiting her museum will be given “free admission in perpetuity,” so they can gaze once again upon their Church.

Brooke Davis Anderson, director, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Nice gesture. But Anderson’s museum, like the Lucas Museum, now has the dubious distinction of being the other side of a transaction that has been deplored as unethical by the leading professional organizations for museums.

I’m not the only one who is troubled by this: After PAFA bought the Church, Jon Seydl, director of the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois (also former curator of European painting and sculpture at the Cleveland Museum and former senior director of collections and programs and curator of European art Worcester Art Museum) tweeted this:

Jon Seydl, director, Krannert Art Museum

When contacted by Parnass of the Eagle, the deep-pocketed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art stated flatly that it was not the purchaser of the Berkshire Museum’s other major Rockwell, “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop,” which hammered at its low estimate of $7 million at Sotheby’s last week. But the Lucas Museum refused to tell Parnass whether or not it had acquired “Shaftsbury.”

“That answer leaves open the possibility that the California museum did acquire the piece but is not ready to make the news public,” Parnass speculated. That said, as I previously learned (regarding another auction purchase), “no comment” may only mean “no comment.”

The Berkshire Museum’s open letter restated its previous comment that it “will realize from these first sales net proceeds of more than $42 million,” not including the proceeds from the private sale of the Church, which is governed by a “confidential sales agreement.” The museum also reiterated that it would “take time now to consider how we will proceed, through possible auction and private sale, to gain additional resources needed to continue the important work of securing the museum’s future.”

It would do better to “take time now” to rethink the disastrous decision to decimate its collection.

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