Berkshire Museum’s Murky “Transparency”: Parsing the Half-Truths in Its “Open Letter”

If this is transparency, we can only wonder what opacity looks like.

Lee Rosenbaum’s Cultural Commentary Blog
May 31, 2018

The Berkshire Museum today posted an open letter to its community that is intended to show its “commitment to transparency, cooperation, outreach,” according to an email from its spokesperson that hit my inbox late this afternoon.

But the “open letter” was less than transparent in describing what happened to the priciest of the museum’s deaccessions:

Berkshire Museum… To Our Community:

Electronic news from the Berkshire Museum
June 2018

Our most important goal has always been to secure the future of the Berkshire Museum. We want to protect what we consider the museum’s most important asset: our open doors. Reaching that goal has proven more difficult than we could have ever imagined, but it is within reach, allowing the museum to remain the ‘window on the world’ founder Zenas Crane sought to provide this community.

Shuffleton’s Barbershop by Norman Rockwell is on its way back to the Berkshires, to the Norman Rockwell Museum, where it will be on public display. We pulled the painting from auction and agreed to accept a significantly lower price through a private sale that keeps this important work in the public eye. Twelve other works were sold, including two acquired by nonprofits where they will be on public display.

Amid Protests, Berkshire Museum Sales Bring Over $40M, and Trustees Want More

©2018 Photo by Timothy Cahill

Timothy Cahill, HYPERALLERGIC
May 31, 2018

So it has begun. The first 13  of the 40 works marked for deaccession by the Berkshire Museum have been sold. George Lucas has bought Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950) for his new museum and a baker’s dozen more were sent to the block earlier this month at Sotheby’s spring sales. These were the first works sold at auction following the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, museum’s settlement with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. In February, the sale designed to pad the museum’s endowment and radically reshape its mission, capping the spoils at a maximum of $55 million. The agreement, which to critics is a bit of a farce itself, has turned the sale into a three-act melodrama. The art is to be disposed of in three separate groups or “tranches,” until the total dollar amount is achieved. Tranche is a banking term derived from the Old French word for “slice”; the settlement, Healey’s office insists, was the best half-a-loaf compromise existing law allowed to mitigate the sell-off. Watching the auctions over the past two weeks, it felt more like death by a thousand cuts.

Sanctions Are Imposed on Berkshire Museum for Sale of Artworks

Colin Moynihan, The New York Times
May 27, 2018

One of the country’s professional museum organizations announced on Friday that its board of trustees had voted to impose sanctions on the Berkshire Museum, which recently sold artworks to support an expansion initiative.

“Selling art to support any need other than to build a museum’s collection fundamentally undermines the critically important relationships between museums, donors and the public. When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make great works of art available to the public.”

Association of Art Museum Directors

AAMD Statement on Sanction of Berkshire Museum and La Salle University Art Museum

AMD Logo

For the Media / Press Releases & Statements
New York, NY
May 25, 2018

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) announced today that its Board of Trustees has voted to impose sanctions on the Berkshire Museum and the La Salle University Art Museum. This follows the decision made by each institution to use the proceeds from recent art sales to support operating budgets or expansion initiatives, a decision that violates one of the core principles of art museums. These actions are in opposition to AAMD’s policy that such funds must be used only to support acquisitions of art.

AAMD has a long-standing policy that restricts the use of funds obtained through deaccessioning to the acquisition of works of art. Selling art to support any need other than to build a museum’s collection fundamentally undermines the critically important relationships between museums, donors and the public. When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make great works of art available to the public. This hurts the individual institution and affects the museum field as a whole.

Rockwell’s ‘Blacksmith’s Boy’ Fetches $7 Million at Auction

Rockwell 'Blacksmith's Boy' fetches 7 million

Larry Parnass, The Berkshire Eagle
May 23, 2018

Norman Rockwell’s painting of dueling blacksmiths sold Wednesday for $7 million, as the Berkshire Museum cashed out its gift from the artist with the more delicate rap of an auctioneer’s hammer.

The price paid for “Blacksmith’s Boy — Heel and Toe,” not including buyer’s fees, hit the presale low bid estimate of that amount set by Sotheby’s during a sale crowded with Rockwell works.

Protest of Berkshire Museum Art Sale to Return to Sotheby’s

Save the Art transport van used by Berkshire residents to attend the Upper East Side, NYC protest. The first two Berkshire Museums artworks were up for auction at Sotheby’s.

Larry Parnass, The Berkshire Eagle
May 22, 2018

Opponents of Berkshire Museum art sales will again stake out a Manhattan sidewalk, determined to decry what they see as an unethical “monetizing” of the Pittsfield collection.

“We want the public to be aware of it and let other institutions know this is a cautionary tale, We just don’t have the protections we need,”

Hope Davis, spokeswoman for Save the Art

Save the Art to Hold Protest at Sotheby’s NYC Headquarters on Wed, May 23rd from 9 to 10am

Press Release – Save the Art
May 21, 2018

PITTSFIELD, Mass. (May 21, 2018) – The Berkshire-based citizens’ group Save the Art – Save the Museum will stage a protest outside Sotheby’s auction house at 1334 York Avenue in New York City, Wednesday, May 23, from 9 to 10 a.m. The group opposes the Berkshire Museum’s unethical deaccession of 40 artworks donated to the community and entrusted to the museum, now on the block at Sotheby’s. Save the Art will be calling attention to the impact this precedent will have on collections of art and artifacts in the public trust held by museums, libraries, and historical societies beyond Massachusetts.

Continue reading “Save the Art to Hold Protest at Sotheby’s NYC Headquarters on Wed, May 23rd from 9 to 10am”

Two Berkshire Museum Works Fetch Combined $1.16 Million

Save the Art – Save the Museum protesters on the Upper East Side sidewalk next to Sotheby’s main entrance before the start of the first two publicly auctioned artworks from the Berkshire Museum.

Benjamin Cassidy, The Berkshire Eagle
May 14, 2018

NEW YORK — The first two publicly auctioned Berkshire Museum artworks since the announcement of the institution’s “New Vision” project last July have been sold for a combined $1.16 million.

Henry Moore’s “Three Seated Women” and Francis Picabia’s “Force Comique” fetched $240,000 and $920,000 hammer prices, respectively, at Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on Monday night. The winning bidders, both by phone, were not immediately known.