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.
“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.”
“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 accelerations.”
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.
Berkshire Museum Unveils $60 Million Reinvention Plan – The Berkshire Museum Press Release, July 12, 2017
Statement on The Berkshire Museum Proposal to Deaccession Works of Art for Its Endowment, Operations, and to Fund Capital Investments – American Alliance of Museums, July 25, 2017
Timeline of Events – Berkshire Museum Deaccessioning Timeline – by Larry Parnass, The Berkshire Eagle, December 20, 2017
“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.”
“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.