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What’d I Miss? News Flashes from the Berkshire Museum & Frick Collection

I leave town for a five-day vacation and news breaks out on several important art-museum stories that we’ve been following (not to mention on several much more important national news stories that we’ve been roiled by).

Here’s what my family (including my three little grandchildren) gazed upon while I took my eyes off the ball:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

And here’s the first of my catch-up posts (with my commentary):

The Berkshire Museum today announced that the embattled Van Shields is retiring from its directorship. An interim successor was named: Museum consultant David Ellis will lead the Pittsfield, MA, institution during “a national search for Shield’s successor.”

David Ellis, the Berkshire Museum’s interim executive director

The press release gave no effective date for these changes, but a museum spokesman told me that they occurred today, adding: “It was Van’s decision” to leave.

This announcement comes just three days after the museum made the dreaded but expected announcement that it will unload nine additional art works through Sotheby’s “to reach the goal of $55 million.” In a To Our Community letter, the museum noted that it “had hoped that the sale of the 13 works [my link, not theirs]…would raise $55 million but we fell short in an unpredictable market.”

With the sub-par results suggesting that potential buyers may be rightly reluctant to take part in transactions that flout museums’ professional standards, the misguided museum doubled-down on its losing strategy, but with a new twist: This time, only two of the nine disposals will occur at public auction. The remaining seven will be sold privately through Sotheby’s, making any paltry prices less appallingly apparent.

You can see a list of the latest sacrifices above a slideshow of their images, here.

The “Community” letter says the goal of the private sales is to “keep these…works in public view.” Time will tell if public-domain buyers materialize. But why a museum would participate in a transaction roundly deplored by its professional organizations (as did the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, when it bought the Berkshire Museum’s unsold Frederic Church, after it failed to sell at auction) is anyone’s guess.

Frederic Church, “Valley of Santa Isabel New Granada,” 1875, sold privately through Sotheby’s to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

One can only hope that Ellis may bring some sanity to a situation that I’ve previously dubbed, Berserk in the Berkshires. But as an interim caretaker, he may lack the will and/or the authority to reverse course. The museum’s spokesperson today answered, “No,” to my question as to whether there might be any reconsideration of the planned art sales under Ellis’ leadership.

With a doctorate in chemistry, Ellis has no art-related experience on his résumé. He did lead a museum, though—12 years as president and director of Boston’s Museum of Science. He also held a brief interim directorship at the Harvard Museum of Natural History and a brief interim presidency at the Boston Children’s Museum.

With plans for the next round of Sotheby’s sales already announced as a done deal, there may be little he can do to stop the hemorrhage, even if he wanted to.

The Frick Collection on Tuesday received approval from the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) for its downsized expansion plans, which I support (although I also supported the previous, more ambitious expansion plan). The 6-1 vote occurred after the neighborhood’s Community Board 8 had reportedly “split on the [Frick’s] proposal and no resolution carried.” (The Frick’s recent 88-page presentation to the LPC is here.)

Director Ian Wardropper at the first landing of the Frick Collection’s grand staircase, which will be opened to visitors after the renovation/expansion
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Although one hurdle has been surmounted, the approval process isn’t over till it’s over: It moves next to the Board of Standards and Appeals, which is expected to consider the $160-million project this fall. Groundbreaking is slated for 2020.

In a NY Times opinion piece posted the day before the LPC gave its approval, Martha Frick Symington Sanger, a great-granddaughter of founder Henry Clay Frick, decried the expansion and renovation as a “plan that would see some of [the Frick’s] historic and landmark elements destroyed and its cherished atmosphere lose out to overzealous commercialization.”

I view it as plan that would enable to Frick to more effectively fulfill its core missions and better serve its public.

More catch-up to come…

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