Berkshire Museum's Art At Auction Happening Too Soon, Arts Community Says

Jul 31, 2017

Now an update to a story we brought you last week: Criticism from national museum associations, cultural institutions, artists, and educators apparently won’t stop the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell 40 objects in its collection to pay for an overhaul of the Pittsfield complex and an endowment fund.

Executive Director Van Shields says he won’t halt the Berkshire Museum’s plan to put artwork on the auction block. The plan is to use the proceeds to fund a $60 million expansion and endowment plan unveiled in mid-July in hopes of becoming the region’s premier science and history museum.

“There is a sliver of the arts-centric community that’s been pushing back. We have been watching that on social media,” Shields says. “We totally get it.”

“We are not a sliver,” Leslie Ferrin says.

Leslie Ferrin organized a group of more than 20 local artists and educators last week to send a letter to the Berkshire Museum calling to stop the bid. They organized a Facebook group called “Save the Art at the Berkshire Museum of Natural History and Art.”

The group has swelled beyond 600.

“If this sale goes through it will basically allow every board in any museum under whatever circumstances they are going through to look at their assets as liquid,” Ferrin says.

The Berkshire Museum says it will cost $20 million to expand and renovate, and another $40 million endowment to make it financially secure. The plan is to sell 40 objects from the museum’s collection – including two works by Norman Rockwell – that have been deemed no longer essential to the museum’s programming. Together, they are expected to fetch $50 million.

The art community’s letter, and many others published in the Berkshire Eagle, come on the heels of an op-ed in the Eagle by Norman Rockwell Museum Director Laurie Norton-Moffat. She wants to keep the two iconic American’s works in the community. Norton-Moffat, whose museum is based in Stockbridge, has declined to speak with WAMC since publishing the op-ed.

Other pieces on the block are by George Henry Durrie, Alexander Calder, and Frederic Edwin Church.

The Association of Art Museum Directors Board and the American Alliance of Museums also released a joint statement in opposition last week. Alliance President Laura Lott opposes the plan and says there are other ways to redevelop the Berkshire Museum.

“Many other museums across the country have found creative solutions that don’t involve pilfering their collections. I know of institutions who have sold their buildings to preserve their collections; institutions who have scaled back their activities to preserve its collections. Our firm belief is that the core of a museum is its collection so the collection really needs to be the last place a museum looks to, to fund itself,” Lott says.

Shields says the museum plans to put the work up for auction sometime in the next six months.

“Let’s face it” if we were not funding the plan in part by this financial strategy to deaccession and sell works of art, it probably would not have mattered. But at the end of the day, we are still in the art business,” Shields says.

Ferrin, who organized the Facebook group, says the Sotheby’s auction is a conflict of interest. The auction house performed the primary evaluations of the artwork, and Ferrin says the process lacked independent professionals.

“The auction houses have one thing in mind and that’s a sale,” Ferrin says, “and they know when the sale is and how to maximize their own profits.”

Facing criticism over whether the auction is in line with its mission, the Berkshire Museum cites an “existential need” to keep the doors open.

Photographer Monika Sosnowski says the county was left for years in the dark about the Museum’s troubles. She works for the Downstreet Art project in North Adams.

“Nobody really knew that the museum was in any financial trouble because that was never really, sort of, on the table – it was never really announced two years ago when they, I guess, hired the consulting firms,” Sosnowski says.

Over the weekend, MASS MoCA Director Joe Thompson published his own op-ed in the Berkshire Eagle, saying the Berkshire Museum has had an annual structural deficit of more than $1 million, on a budget that is only $2.4 million. Thompson called the Berkshire Museum’s endowment plan necessary, but was skeptical of the need to expand.

Peter Dudek, the Cultural Programmer at Bascom Lodge atop Mount Grelock, agrees.

“If things are sold it should go towards the endowment more than the renovation of the building,” Dudek says. “Well, maybe $60 million for an endowment is better, which would mean that they wouldn’t do any renovations at this point.”

Dudek says the Museum should have announced its plan earlier in the year to better alert federal, state and private funding sources.

“I think if the museum had shown up earlier with this need for financing they might have been part of this game, but now it’s kind of late in the day,” Dudek says.

Shields is scheduled to give a presentation about the museum’s new vision at Bascom Lodge October 8th.

There is pressure on the Berkshire Museum to release its taxes to prove it’s facing a dire financial situation. Others in the community like Ralph Brill, the director of Eclipse Mill – Studio 109 in North Adams, suggests residents sue the museum to halt the auction.