2017 – 2018 Precedent Deaccession Sale of 40 Artworks
In 2018 a $53.25 million dollar sale resulted in the loss of 22 of the community’s most valuable works of art, held in trust by the Berkshire Museum. The sale, brokered by Sotheby’s and ultimately sanctioned by the State of Massachusetts, resulted in the transfer of the majority of these pieces to private ownership. Use of the net proceeds is somewhat restricted and interest generated from the $40 million dollar endowment currently used to support general operating expenses. This sale took place before COVID-19. The proceeds were not sought for nor are they used to diversify the collection or address staff pay equity.This precedent setting sale and the use of the funds continues to fuel current debate about deacession in general—how and why it is done, and the broad consequences related to professional practices.
Locally, the impact on our community is no less complex. Decisions made behind the scenes by the board, former leadership and legal advisers ultimately led to the loss of our art, cultural heritage and impact both present and future generations. We continue to watch and observe the museum’s role in the community and live with the consequences of those decisions on our small, regional museum that still has the word ART in its name.
Of the 40 works of art removed from the Berkshire Museum collection, 22 were sold, netting $53.25 million. Eighteen objects were returned from Sotheby’s. Click on frame for more information
“The works that have been selected for deaccession have been deemed to be not essential to the Museum’s refreshed mission and do not directly contribute to its new interdisciplinary interpretive plan with its heightened emphasis on science and history.”
North Adams Transcript, Friday, August 22, 1958
“Recently acquired by the
Calder Foundation, the sculpture was
included in a group exhibition in the
summer of 1933 at the Berkshire Museum
in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; the Berkshire
purchased the work, making it Calder’s
first abstract sculpture to be acquired by a
museum. In a statement for the exhibition
catalogue, Calder wrote: “The orbits are all
circular arcs or circles. The supports have
been painted to disappear against a white
background to leave nothing but the
moving elements, their forms and colors,
and their orbits, speeds and
What happened in 2017-2018 at the Berkshire Museum of History, Science and Art is documented on this website. At the time of the public announcement the artwork had already been consigned, crated and removed before the community was informed. Three years later not one public, open forum has been held.
“As one of the 400 community members asked by Director Van Shields to participate in a focus group on the museum’s future, I can confirm the reporting done by The Eagle that the groups were not informed that the plan called for selling the 40 works of art. I can also add that last week I received a letter from Director Shields that explains such an ethical oversight by saying, “We did not flag that for you, because we wanted your unfettered input to test our ideas and make our final selection.” In addition he adds, “You were not asked to endorse our New Vision; rather, you played a role in helping us shape it.”
In 1933, Berkshire Museum Director Laura Bragg exhibited the work of four Berkshire residents: Alexander Calder, George Morris of the Fiffh Avenue cubists, Calvert Coggeshall, and Alma de Gersdorff. While his fanily summered in the Berkshires, this was Calder’s first exhibit in the United States. Calder gained fame in Paris, where he used simple iron wire as his medium, twisting it into varying curves and forms. Calder was considered a pioneer in his use of industrial materials and fabrication proceses. In the opinion of many art experts, much of contemporary sculpture has been influenced by his work. Bragg purchased two of Calder’s early modern sculptures exhibited at this show for the Twentieth Century Gallery. In an Art Digest article about Calder’s work, written just after the purchase, Bragg said: “They succeed in giving freshly creative form of motion devoid from representation. Whether or not they are the introduction of a new art form, I am sure they have real significance. I have watched with curiosity their effect upon the general public. People sit quietly before them, apparently stilled and quieted by something, perhaps merely by the rhythm of the movement. But we have found it easy to make a Sunday afternoon crowd understand ‘abstract’ motion where they would be blank before abstract painting.” Bragg was the first American museum director to recognize Calder’s genius with her purchase of two motorized sculptures, The Arc and the Quadrant and Dancing Torpedo Shape.
“While museums do sell pieces from time to time, they don’t sell them wholesale, especially their core collection. This is really outrageous and would be a huge blow to the Berkshires.“
“I am signing because I believe the Berkshire Museum’s board of trustees have failed in their stewardship of the museum. The sale of these works of art violates the code of ethic followed by accredited museums and a betrayal of the public trust.”
SAVE THE ART (STA) A grassroots citizens group established in 2017 with the intent of stopping the sale of the Berkshire Museum’s treasured art collection in order to find an alternate solution to its continued financial shortfall.
The mission of Save the Art is to advocate for and protect the Public Trust — the art and objects belonging to all of us that document humankind’s creative and social history through time.
We thank the Berkshire Eagle for their extensive investigative coverage, the journalists, op-ed writers and our community for their hundreds of letters of concern. In particular, STA applauds Larry Parnass, Investigations Editor, Berkshire Eagle, for his excellent coverage of the Berkshire Museum and achievement of the 2018 Outstanding Journalism award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.