Why Art Collections Are Imperiled
What happened at the Berkshire Museum
SAVE THE ART (STA) is an ad hoc citizens group formed in the summer of 2017 to protest the Berkshire Museum’s intent to sell its art for reasons that violated the long-held ethical standards of museum governance,* which stipulate deaccession proceeds must directly enhance collections and/or their care. This ethical principle is fundamental to the protection of the Public Trust: works of art held in public collections (like the Berkshire Museum’s) are our common heritage, owned by citizens for their benefit and succeeding generations in perpetuity.
The Berkshire Museum’s plan was to sell forty works of art that formed the core of its collection to correct a financial shortfall and support their “New Vision”— which proposed a major reconstruction of the building, and focused on science while marginalizing art. Both the misuse of sale funds and the fundamental change in mission violated the board’s responsibility to the communities it serves — and were carried out in the face of sustained public outcry and attempts to find an alternate solution.
STA’s local and national supporters clarified the issues for the public and the press, organized protests, and raised funds for litigation. Over the course of two years, STA played an essential role in bringing national attention to this critical issue.
The litigations in 2017-2018 decided in favor of the Berkshire Museum and resulted in the $53.25 million sale of 22 of its most valuable works of art, most removed from the Public Trust and transferred to private hands. The ruling stipulated that a nominal amount be set aside and applied to the remaining collection, but most of the proceeds were left unregulated. Sanctions by the larger community of art museums and cultural organizations limited the Museum’s ability to collaborate with other institutions and negatively impacted their eligibility for state funding.
Currently, museums across the United States, many already financially stressed, face increasing challenges as a result of the pandemic. The long-term impact of the coronavirus on the health of our museums may well put the Public Trust in ever greater danger. STA continues to advocate for solutions that preserve, protect, and strengthen public collections.