Selling Art To Fund Overhaul Snares Berkshire Museum In Controversy

Jul 26, 2017

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is caught in a controversy about its plan to sell off part of its collection to pay for an overhaul of the museum and an endowment fund.

The Berkshire Museum unveiled a $60 million plan in mid-July to become the region’s premier science and history museum.

“We couldn’t be more proud of the new vision,” McGraw said. “We have been untied as a board in the development of this plan and we are united in enthusiasm for moving forward with its implementation in its implementation.” Board of Trustees President Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw said.

Board of Trustees President Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw said at the announcement it would cost $20 million to expand and renovate the museum, and another $40 million endowment to make it financially secure.

But the plan has been met by growing opposition among some cultural institutions and residents of the Berkshires in recent days.

They contend the problem is the lion’s share of the project is funded by the sale of 40 objects from the museum’s collection – including two Norman Rockwell works: "Shuffleton's Barber Shop" and "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop – that have been deemed no longer essential to the museum’s programming. The 40 objects are expected to sell for $50 million.

“Like boards of all non-profit institutions we have had to wrestle with issues and ask hard questions that challenge the very existence of the museum,” McGraw said.

…like selling priceless works of art.

Last week, the director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, Laurie Norton Moffatt, came out against the Berkshire Museum’s plans to sell two of the iconic American’s works. She called for the museum to pause its plan in an opinion piece published in the Berkshire Eagle.

The Norman Rockwell Museum says Norton Moffatt refuses to comment any further about the impending sale at this time, adding that the works are significant, and it would be a shame if they left the Berkshires.

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

A letter from more than 20 local artists and educators sent Tuesday to the Berkshire Museum called to stop the bid. They organized a Facebook group called “Save the Art at the Berkshire Museum of Natural History and Art,” and their number grew to more than 220 in 24 hours, with at least 50 additional signers.

Leslie Ferrin is the group’s organizer.

“Let’s take the time to examine how we can keep art as part of the mission. I think most people feel that natural history, science and art go hand in hand and it’s very important for education that they stay combined,” Ferrin says.

The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors issued a joint statement opposing the plan.

Association of Art Museum Directors Board of Trustees President Lori Fogarty says the Berkshire Museum is breaking its code of ethics.

Both organizations’ code of ethics say proceeds from the sale of collections cannot be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.

“Those proceeds should only be used for future acquisitions, to purchase things that will actually strengthen collection. And in the case of the Berkshires, they are proposing to sell 40 works. I mean, it is not an unsubstantial part of their fine art collection and its extraordinary works from their fine art collection and to sell those at auction and use the funds for capitalization and endowment and other financial needs that museum has right now,” Fogarty says. “We also feel in the long run it’s going to be a real loss to that community.”

The Berkshire Museum says the plan’s critique is to be expected, and won’t abandon its plans.

Berkshire Museum Executive Director Van Shields defended the plan in an interview with WAMC Wednesday afternoon. He says by creating an endowment fund the museum can pay down existing debt, reduce financial risk and establish a long-term reserve for future collections and expansions.

“Let’s face 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.

The museum received $2.5 million from the Feigenbaum Foundation to help further the transition. The Berkshire Museum has launched a $10 million strategic plan campaign to fund the rest.

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