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2017-12-29 - Berkshire Museum exterior

Museums & the Public Interest: More Questions for the Berkshire Museum

Ruth Osborne
2017-12-29 - Berkshire Museum exterior

Courtesy: Ben Garver — The Berkshire Eagle

 

An opinion piece appeared earlier this month by an economist at George Mason University (D.C.) that emphasized the right of the Berkshire Museum Board to make the decision to sell art and shift its focus to “new areas where they can be strong and discard some older activities”. He compares the Museum Board in question with the actions of other museums to add to their displays either more recent artworks or those by minorities in order to expand their offerings and diversify their audience. But to empty out ones galleries of prized works as a way to keep the Museum itself afloat is an entirely different scenario. The Berkshire is not simply changing with the times and becoming more “high-tech”, nor is it shifting focus because art isn’t as captivating as science and technology are to contemporary audiences. The latter alone has been proven by the hoards of Museum members and locals advocating legal action against the deaccession sales.

The author does ultimately admit that the Museum Board’s decision “isn’t exactly the original intent of the museum”, and that the rather careless attitude towards the American art in their collection is a “sad truth”. The dismissiveness of the Berkshire Museum Board towards its own collection and founding 1903 mission of connecting art and natural history for the public is alarming. Why choose one over the other? Was it because the sale of works of art instead of natural history specimens promised more financial uplift to their endowment?

Just two weeks ago, previously detained documents were released that reveal some less-than-savory details about the Board’s process in making their final decision to sell of collection masterpieces (read: money-makers).

The documents contained reports to the Museum Board from TDC, a Boston-based museum consultant group. Under TDC’s  “summary of capitalization needs”, the Berkshire Museum needs around $2 mil would be required to pay down debt and upwards of $6 mil on top of that to improve the site’s facilities. In addition, TDC advised that $23 million in permanent endowments (the Museum’s current is just over $7 mil), would round out their ability to “stabilize [their] operations on multiple dimensions.” The report insisted that a scenario involving no deaccessions, and therefore no sales, would be absolutely “unsustainable”. From looking at this report, without  deaccessions, the museum would seemingly have no other choice but to close. Anyone see any issue here with how the Museum’s mission is being perceived?

2017-12-29 - Berkshire Museum Board Meeting report

Courtesy: artnet

These scenarios place the institution itself over the importance of the works for which the institution was founded. Between April and October of 2016, around the same time that TDC’s “Scenario summaries” were issued to the Board, they also welcomed both Sotheby’s and Christie’s to take valuation of its collection and see what could fit the bill to make a little cash. Turns out that the artworks they put on the chopping block – 40 out of tens of thousands in the collection – accounted for about 90% of its total value. How are the works that only make up 10% of the collection’s value to support such a sharp shift in mission? Will new audiences actually turn out in the numbers needed to justify this campaign?

Besides being scolded by the many community members it is supposed to serve, and directors at the renowned Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA), the Berkshire’s flinging off of AAM regulations has resulted in the loss of its Smithsonian partnership. The AAM, along with the Association of Art Museum Directors also issued a statement on the Berkshire’s decision that read:

Such a sale sends a message to existing and prospective donors that museums can raise funds by selling parts of their collection, thereby discouraging not only financial supporters, who may feel that their support isn’t needed, but also donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls. That cuts to the heart not only of the Berkshire Museum, but every museum in the United States.

Museum Mismanagement On Trial: The Berkshire Museum Taken to Court.

Ruth Osborne

2017-11-13 - Thomas Wilmer Dewing The White Dress

Thomas Wilmer Dewing, The White Dress, 1901. Courtesy: Berkshire Fine Arts.

The story of the Berkshire Museum’s massive deaccession sale and change of mission over the past 5 months has been one that mirrors a rapidly tottering see-saw.

 

We reported a few months back on the Berkshire Museum’s planned sale of 40 masterworks in its collection due to failed finances and a decision to “rebrand” their institution. First, the Board of the Museum had decided to sell the works with Sotheby’s before it actually cast votes in June and the public became aware. According to Keating, attorney for the sons of Norman Rockwell (two of whose works were deaccessioned and slated for auction), the Museum “could have avoided [the sale] if they perhaps…had been willing to discuss this two and a half years ago when they decided to sell the art”. Keating has also told reporters that the Museum in fact engaged in talks with auction houses as early as 2015 in light of a failed capital campaign.

Then, two lawsuits were brought by several important members of the national arts community as well as the Museum’s local community have taken a stand against the sale. These included the Massachusets State Attorney General, the family of Norman Rockwell, and current and former Museum members. On Wednesday, Nov. 1st, the Superior Court began hearing arguments.

Just 7 days later, on Nov. 8th, the AG’s office submitted an emergency motion late in the day in order to try and halt the sale, which had been announced for November 13th. However, despite these measures, the judge proceeded to the decision that the Museum was acting within its rights.

AND THEN, after the AG launched yet another motion in an attempt to halt the sale on Friday morning Nov. 10th, Friday evening the judge agreed that the AG should in fact receive more time to complete the investigation into the sale. Due to this decision, works slated for auction this week have been removed from their sales at Sotheby’s. The AG has reportedly been granted until December 11th to consider the legality of the sales.

 

2017-11-13 - Normal Rockwell Shuffleton's Barbershop

Normal Rockwell, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, 1959. Courtesy: Berkshire Fine Arts.

As of this moment, the American Art sale at Sotheby’s New York is ongoing, BUT there are several lots missing. Those being nos. 10-16:

10. Normal Rockwell, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, est. $20,000,000-30,000,000

11. George Henry Durrie, Hunter in Winter Wood, est. $400,000-600,000

12. John La Farge, Magnolia, est. $200,000-300,000

13. Thomas Wilmer Dewing, The White Dress, est. $600,000-800,000

14. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Diana of the Tower, est. $250,000-300,000

15. Albert Bierstadt, Connecticut River Valley Claremont, New Hampshire, est. $600,000-800,000

16. Normal Rockwell, Blacksmith’s Boy – Hell and Toe, est. $7,000,000-10,000,000

Click here for more lots listed as “upcoming” in other sales at Sotheby’s, particularly for this week’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale (tomorrow @7pm) and Day Sale (Wednesday @10am). All these works are still to remain at Sotheby’s until future decisions from the court.

2017-11-13 - Sotheby's auction site

The Museum has also been issued a “Modern Concern Advisory” from Charity Navigator, an organization that evaluates non-profits based on financial documents and, in particular to the Berkshire case,  any “allegations of illegal activity, improper conduct, or organizational mismanagement”.

Albert Bierstadt Giant Redwood Trees of California

Master Plan? Or Master Disaster? The Nation’s Arts Community Reacts to the Berkshire Museum’s Plan to Sell 40 Works.

Ruth Osborne
2017-08-04 Berkshire Museum Facade

Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA

The argument for museums and cultural institutions established by generations past to be more relevant to the needs of communities has been going on for years.

It appears when museums find themselves without the resources to keep the lights on or repair major structural damages to their historic buildings. When philanthropy and funding patterns change dramatically, and cultural institutions can’t keep up, do we say that we’re to blame for mismanaging a collection or its finances? Or do we make the art the scapegoat and throw it out instead of opening our eyes to its ability to connect with different areas of society – scientific discovery, warfare, political revolutions, racial discrimination, etc. – and visually magnify one’s understanding of society and of human development.

Another collection has recently come under fire – and rightly so – for planning to sell off FORTY works of art in its galleries in favor of a $20 mil renovation and $40 mil for its endowment. For this, the Berkshire Museum has received an appropriately negative reaction from the American Alliance of Museums for deaccessioning works of art in order to sell; AAM’s measure follows policies we’ve outlined in past posts regarding similar unfortunate occurrences at the Delaware Art Museum and the former Corcoran Gallery. If the art is noteworthy enough to produce that much expected revenue, how can it be thought beneficial to remove these works from their public? This recent story of the Berkshire has been covered in both local and national outlets, including news that the Museum has hired more outside consultants to deal with probing questions on its new plan.

Albert Bierstadt Giant Redwood Trees of California

Albert Bierstadt, Giant Redwood Trees of California (1874). Courtesy: Google Art Project.

But ArtWatch would like to ask its readers if the sale of art by cultural institutions does not send the message that art – a visual expression of a cultural experiences – is not relevant to us today? The Berkshire Museum reportedly plans to shift their mission to focus on science and natural history. But what about the representation of human’s interaction with science and natural history as represented in works like Thomas Moran’s The Last Arrow, Albert Bierstadt’s Giant Redwood Trees of California, or even Saint-Gaudens’ bronze Diana of the Tower? Do not these landscapes convey to viewers the natural history of the American East and West, and the characters who lived in, battled with, studied, and fought to battles to preserve it? Or what about the ways sculptors throughout history learned about the scientific properties of metals and manipulated them into form? Laura Norton Moffatt, director of the Normal Rockwell Museum for 30+ years, concurs, saying in a recent op-ed in the Berkshire Eagle that “artworks and natural artifacts are not mutually exclusive, but mutually enriching”. What about the ways Pieter de Hooch’s Music Party or Rockwell’s Blacksmith’s Boy – Heel and Toe convey lively scenes of everyday life that capture human culture and craftsmanship in ways a violin or blacksmith’s anvil standing alone cannot?