Berkshire Museum’s art sale

THE BOSTON GLOBE editorial page offered its support over the weekend for the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell off 40 of its most valued works of art, including two paintings by Norman Rockwell.

The editorial acknowledged the proposed sale is unprecedented in the museum world, but said the financially struggling Pittsfield-based institution has little choice. “Absent an angel donor with a big heart and wallet, it’s the right call, even if it’s a gut-wrenching one,” the Globe said.

In case you haven’t noticed, the Berkshire Museum’s proposed art sale isn’t just a local story in Western Massachusetts. It has become a cause celebre in the art world, with the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors opposing the sale and Joseph Thompson, the director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, supporting it. The sale of the museum’s artwork has also raised thorny questions about a museum’s responsibility to its art donors and the public at large.

The Berkshire Museum said it has been running annual deficits for years and wants to transition away from art to a “New Vision” centered around technology-intensive displays dealing with science and history. While the Globe editorial made it sound as if the art sale was necessary to save the museum from financial ruin, Andrew Russeth, writing in ArtNews, portrayed the sale as part of a broader strategy. He noted the museum said it needs $40 million to correct its finances for the long-term, but points out the sale of just one of Rockwell’s paintings would probably add $30 million to the museum’s existing $7.45 million endowment.

“Some outside experts have suggested that an infusion of anywhere from $4.6 million to $10 million would keep the museum afloat in the way it currently operates, but that is not what the museum wants,” Russeth wrote. “It wants to expand and reimagine its activities. As a tech entrepreneur might say, it wants to pivot.”

The Berkshire Museum’s pivot was embraced initially by the institution’s hometown newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle. But the publication reversed course with an editorial published on October 31. The Eagle said it changed its mind after reading some of the newspaper’s own reporting, which questioned the severity of the museum’s financial problems and the nebulous nature of its “New Vision.”

“Undoubtedly, the museum could use millions more dollars to add to its endowment, but the method chosen to get this money resembles throwing out the baby to save the bath water,” the Eagle said. “The Berkshire Museum’s deaccessioning breaks a covenant with the citizens of Berkshire County. The Berkshire Museum — and this collection of art that rivals the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. — is this community’s ‘window on the world,’ as the Berkshire Museum itself puts it. It’s a window that must not be broken.”

BRUCE MOHL

 

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