Call To Pause Berkshire Museum's Art Sale Divides Community

Sep 25, 2017

The Massachusetts Cultural Council is urging the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield to halt its planned art sale. 

The Massachusetts Cultural Council called the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell 40 objects – including two Norman Rockwell works – from its collection to support an expansion and endowment fund a violation of public trust.

The Council says it may withhold funding to the museum, pending review from the state attorney general’s office. The museum’s plans have drawn criticism from other cultural organizations and Berkshires residents.

Council Executive Director Anita Walker said in a statement that the museum should take all necessary measures to curtail the sale. She spoke with WAMC in August.

“I can tell you that we have been talking to all parties involved, that we are very, very interested in the future, and the success, and the sustainability of the Berkshire Museum,” Walker said.

The Berkshire Museum responded to Walker’s statement, saying it won't stop its plan. The museum contends the Council’s move is “disappointing and betrays” its mission to help art institutions grow.

Museum leadership says the council has not “put forth a concrete or viable alternative” to the auction. The decision comes ahead of a scheduled meeting next month to discuss the museum’s financials.

State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat, told WAMC Friday she backs the museum’s leadership.

“I think the tone has been divisive. And I think the attacks on the professionalism and the character of the board and the staff is inappropriate and unproductive,” Farley-Bouvier says.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer could not be reached for comment Monday, but made similar remarks earlier in September. Tyer has said funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council is crucial for the city’s growth.

In August, an anonymous group offered the museum a $1 million donation to pause the sale. Board of Trustees President Elizabeth McGraw said it wasn’t a “realistic, viable financial offer.”

Sotheby’s estimates the works could go for up to $68 million.

Speaking before a recent rally against the sale, Carol Diehl argued the move was inappropriate.

“These are the works that were – a lot of them given to the museum in its founding,” Diehl says. “These are essential to the history of Pittsfield and the Berkshires. And the idea is that museums are in charge of taking care of these works. That’s what curator means – someone who takes care of the works. They were given by donors to be there for the enjoyment and the education of the people. They were not given to fund a new wing or a new program.”

Norman Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop” could fetch up to $40 million alone. Again, Representative Farley-Bouvier.

“Those Rockwells aren’t right now helping the children, the youth and the families of Pittsfield,” Farley-Bouvier says. “And in the new vision that the museum has [an interactive, high-tech approach to science and history education], it is something that will make the lives of children, youth, and families in Pittsfield better.”

The auction is expected to start in November.