Frequently Asked Questions
What was the sale of 40 artworks at the Berkshire Museum all about?
In an announcement on July 12, 2017, the Berkshire Museum’s Board of Trustees stated that in order to ensure that the Museum will continue to serve the community for the next hundred years, the board has sent its 40 most valuable artworks to auction in an attempt to shore up its finances and fund a reinvention of the Museum. The Museum has stated that the 40 works of art chosen for sale are not essential for its new vision.
“To support the capitalization strategy, the Board of Trustees has opted to deaccession 40 works of art from the Museum’s extensive collection numbering approximately 40,000 objects. The Museum is working with Sotheby’s to offer these works for sale. The Museum anticipates the proceeds to be in the region of $50 million. Included are two paintings by Norman Rockwell, Shuffleton’s Barbershop and Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop, as well as other works in the fine art categories of Impressionist and Modern Art, Contemporary Art, 19th-Century European Paintings, American Art, Old Master Paintings, and Chinese Works of Art. 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.”The Berkshire Museum Board of Trustees
“We refute claims that the artworks are not essential to the Museum or the Berkshire community, and believe this action is unethical and betrays the public trust.”STA/STM
Press Releases from The Berkshire Museum
Berkshire Museum Unveils $60 Million Reinvention Plan
A Message from Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw, The Berkshire Museum Board of Trustees President– Berkshire Museum website
Why is such a sale considered unethical?
National museum associations, including the Smithsonian Institution and the American Alliance of Museums, both of with which the Berkshire Museum is affiliated, have clearly stated codes of ethics stipulating that profit from sales from a museum’s collection may only be used for the enhancement and care of the collection (to sell a painting to obtain a better painting, for example, or to contribute to the collection’s physical care and preservation). Deaccessioning is not to be used for operational expenses, to clear debts, or to create an endowment. This policy protects works in the public trust from misuse by museum boards and administrations who might be tempted to use the collection to further their own ends (e.g., increase executive salaries or give a contract for a new wing to cousin Joe) or, as we suspect in the case of the Berkshire Museum, compensate for insufficient fund-raising efforts. It’s easier to sell a masterpiece than to knock on donor’s doors. This ethics breach has propelled the Berkshire Museum into the national spotlight. Major news organizations have covered the story, including the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, and many others, as well as bloggers and the art press.
“In trashing its own prospects, the Berkshire Museum jeopardizes every art museum in the United States.”Los Angeles Times
August 23, 2017
Why a Massachusetts museum selling its prized Norman Rockwell painting should worry art museums everywhere
– by Christopher Knight, LA Times
July 25, 2017
Berkshire Museum’s Planned Sale of Art Draws Opposition
– by Colin Moynihan, The New York Times
Don’t museums sell things all the time?
Museums regularly deaccession objects to strengthen their collections. Museums sell works that no longer fit their mission or that they cannot care for (sometimes placing those objects in other museums) and use funds from these sales to acquire new works or to care for the collections. Deaccessioning to fund operations, relieve debt, or pay construction costs, as the Berkshire Museum would do, is unethical and unprofessional.
What national museum organizations object to the Berkshire Museum sale?
National museum groups including the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), Association of Art Museum Curators, and the American Association of State and Local History have all made public statements condemning the sale. In a rare joint statement, the AAM and AAMD denounced the sale in no uncertain terms.
“One of the most fundamental and long-standing principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset. Selling from the collection for purposes such as capital projects or operating funds not only diminishes the core of works available to the public, it erodes the future fundraising ability of museums nationwide. Such a sale sends a message to existing and prospective donors that museums can raise funds by selling parts of their collection, thereby discouraging not only financial supporters, who may feel that their support isn’t needed, but also donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls. That cuts to the heart not only of the Berkshire Museum, but every museum in the United States.”AAM / AAMD Joint Statement
What would professional censure mean for the Museum’s future?
Censure by these national associations will isolate the Berkshire Museum from the greater museum community. The Museum will no longer be able to borrow objects for exhibitions, a practice that allows institutions to enrich their programming and expand their mission. Borrowing and lending works of art for exhibitions can be a means of attracting individual and foundational support—avenues that will be closed to the Berkshire Museum if it proceeds with the sale. Additionally the relationship with Smithsonian Affiliates and other programs that allow reciprocal admission privileges will likely end.
“By selling art to support operations, the Berkshire Museum will be a pariah in the national community of museums.”Dan L. Monroe, Director and CEO, Peabody Essex Museum, former AAM director.
Why are these works of art so important?
The 40 artworks marked for sale at auction are among the Berkshire Museum’s finest treasures and an unparalleled asset for a small community. They were intended for the educational and aesthetic inspiration of our citizens, to deepen understanding of the world, and to add insight into our specific local history. Several of the items were donated by founder Zenas Crane, including works by painters of the internationally revered Hudson River School. Two Norman Rockwell paintings, one the magnificent masterpiece, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, were donated by Rockwell himself for the permanent collection. Works by Alexander Calder, whose family was from the Berkshires, were specifically commissioned during the early years of the Museum. All were given to the community in public trust.
Many members of the community talk about the influences these works had on their lives as children, and how they might similarly contribute to the children of the future. The national interest shown in this sale is reflective of the artworks’ intrinsic worth, as well as their importance for cultural tourism.
Norman Rockwell clearly intended his gifts to remain in the Berkshire Museum. Did the Rockwell family made a statement on the sale?
Yes, Norman Rockwell’s family forcefully objected to the sale of paintings given by their father to the people of Berkshire County. Norman Rockwell had a very close friendship with Berkshire Museum and its former director, Stuart Henry, and entrusted his work to Henry for permanent care and exhibit in the Museum.
“Norman Rockwell didn’t give [Shuffleton’s Barbershop] to finance the Museum’s renovation plans,” “He gave it hoping the people of the Berkshires would see it and enjoy it.”
“It’s one thing when you deaccession works that are damaged, are difficult to maintain or are very remote from the mission of the museum. But it’s another thing when you’re deaccessioning things because they’re worth a lot of money and you want a nice big endowment, and you want to do something cool with that money.”Geoffrey Rockwell, the artist’s grandson, says the Berkshire Museum is sending a dangerous message with its planned sale.
There are other museums in the county where people can see works by Rockwell and others. Why is it important that these specific works of art stay in Pittsfield?
First, the presence of one masterpiece does not negate the unique artistic value of another. Artworks are not interchangeable commodities; each is an individual treasure whose significance is distinctive to it alone. In addition, many of the works to be sold are by world-class artists who are not otherwise represented in Berkshire County museums, including Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, Alexander Calder, Joshua Reynolds, Rembrandt Peale, and many more.
And while it is true that Berkshire County is an art mecca, boasting many fine museums, the Berkshire Museum is special in that it is accessible to residents of Pittsfield, the county seat, by walking, bike or bus; families can visit regularly without needing a car. The Museum also serves the largest number of school children in the county, generations of whom have been inspired and shaped by exposure to the artworks to be sold.
Unlike other area institutions, the Berkshire Museum’s collection is wide in scope, containing the fine arts (work by noted artists from the region as well as works gifted by members of the community), along with natural history and historic artifacts. By making associations across disciplines, the collection engages a conversation about the community’s shared ideals and charts changing cultural eras. Used wisely, the art collection would be a significant draw for cultural tourism.
Can the Berkshire Museum survive and revitalize without selling these works of art?
Even during the Great Depression, the American people believed that their cultural institutions made a city great. They believed in the enduring principle that a museum exists to steward its collection, not that the collection is there to save the museum. Museums across the country, in cities large and small, have faced struggles as severe—or worse—than the Berkshire Museum and have found better solutions. Their trustees, staff, donors, and citizens all agreed that the collections, the heart of their museums, deserved protecting.
We are convinced there are alternatives to the sale of the 40 artworks to strengthen and diversify the Museum’s finances, including more dynamic fundraising, exhibition development, increased earned revenue, and attendance growth. The Berkshire Museum is uniquely poised to tell the fascinating story of the history of Berkshire County through its art, history, and natural sciences collections.
It is hard work to build a base of support for a museum. This is done through creating exhibitions that broaden the audience base and attract patrons, and by building partnerships with other institutions and foundations.
“We stand ready to assist, in any way we are able, to find other solutions to the institution’s needs without resorting to the selling of works that can never be recovered.”The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors
August 13, 2017
Letter: Museum should pause, explore other options – Lori Fogarty and Laura L. Lott, Lori Fogarty is director and CEO, Oakland Museum of California, AAMD President. Laura L. Lott is president and CEO, American Alliance of Museums. New York, N.Y.
How can these works of art help the Museum’s future vision?
We believe that these great works of art should be the centerpiece of the Museum’s interdisciplinary programs. Research has shown that learning from art enhances critical thinking skills and improves academic performance in other disciplines, including reading and math.
Additionally, art has the power to spark imagination and wonder, and to inspire young artists. Children have a natural response to classical works, and numerous members of the community have spoken about discovering as children artworks now on the auction block, of “getting lost” in George Inness’ Mountain Landscape or Albert Bierstadt’s Giant Redwood Trees, for instance, or inventing stories about the girls in Bouguereau’s charming Pony-back Ride.
Access to these great works of art may even inspire the next generation of “geniuses” from our community. For example, Ethiopian-American artist Julie Mehretu, a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship (aka the “Genius Grant”) and resident of the Catskills, is currently working on a series of paintings inspired by the work of Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church, both artists included in the works to be sold. Her work will address westward expansion as well as the migration of enslaved people via the Underground Railroad. Mehretu said, “I was attracted to these landscape paintings that were trying to describe a really intense moment historically, of what this country was becoming, on all these different levels.”
Have other museums like the Berkshire Museum faced financial challenges? How have they overcome them without selling art?
The Oakland Museum of California in Oakland, CA, is a wonderful example of a successful reimagining of a museum with a multi-disciplinary art, history and natural history.
The Oakland Museum recently went through a similar process of reinvention and community engagement through a visioning process with their community, and presented a refreshed vision that made their collection of California art one of the pillars of their new plan. OMCA utilizes it collections to share the stories of California’s past, present, and future with communities around the world. Like the Berkshire Museum their collection is eclectic and very large—1.8 million objects!
Oakland Museum – How Visitors Changed Our Museum
“OMCA’s collections include 1.8 million objects ranging from fine and decorative arts to historic and cultural artifacts and natural science specimens. While basic information exists in their collections database for most of these objects, a much smaller portion have adequate documentation and less than 3% are currently available on-line. Less than 1% of holdings are on view in the Museum galleries or on loan to other institutions. Further, while the Museum’s collection is deep in a number of areas reflecting California’s heritage, it does not fully incorporate new trends, populations, or creative developments that reflect California’s present and potential future. Our focus for the coming years is to rigorously strategize future acquisitions to better reflect the Museum’s mission and goals, and to pursue expanded platforms to make OMCA’s collections – and related stories, content, and related data – not only available, but meaningfully accessible, to worldwide visitors and users.”Oakland Museum
3.1 Strengthen the collection to align with the Museum’s future-focused mission and reflect the current issues and changing demographics of California.
3.2 Expand collaborative and multi-platform access to the Museum’s collections and related content.
3.3 Ensure collection policies and procedures support the visitor-centered mission, vision, and values of the institution while meeting the highest level of integrity and standards in the field.
3.4 Increase the collections research capacity of the Museum by developing collections access, education, and research environments in and between galleries and back-of-house spaces.”
Can’t someone just buy the art and donate it back to the Berkshire Museum? What will happen to these works of art once they are sold?
Many people have suggested this possibility, but the reality is that collectors buy works for their own enjoyment or as investments. It is unreasonable to expect a collector to purchase and then donate back a work of art that is already held in the public trust. Some people have asked if other museums in the region could buy the art. These museums already conduct extensive fundraising campaigns to support their own programs and collections, and the estimated sale prices are well beyond their resources. In reality, selling off these artworks means most or all of them will end up in private collections far removed from the Berkshires and forever out of public view.
Sotheby’s already has the art, so isn’t it too late to stop the sale?
The Museum has stated that the contract is irrevocable and cannot be broken, but all contracts are negotiable. We believe that Sotheby’s would not want to harm the Museum and its own reputation in the art and museum world by taking a hard line. We are confident that by mutual agreement of the Berkshire Museum board and Sotheby’s, the contract can be modified.
Why are people so upset? The Museum says there will still be many artworks in the collection.
Many people see the art collection as integral to what they love about their museum of “Natural History and Art,” the legend carved over the Berkshire Museum’s front door. The art was given to the people of the county and it has direct relevance to the history and distinct cultural legacy of the Berkshires.
Many people feel betrayed by the Museum leadership’s decision to sell the art, and by the way they have gone about it. A supposed “two-year planning process” lacked transparency. At no time during the planning were Museum members or the public informed that important and much-beloved art would be sold to achieve the “new vision.” The sale was announced as a fait accompli, with the art slated to be sold having already been removed from the Museum.
While the planning process is said to have received approval from members of the community, including school-age children, the participants were not told of the possibility of the sale of masterworks of the art collection. Artists, art professionals, and Museum members were shocked and surprised by the announcement.
The artworks culled for sale were not chosen in a professional manner, which would involve evaluation by experts according to the art’s cultural value to the institution and the community. Instead, the works were selected by the auction house solely for their monetary value and approved by the board to achieve a financial goal.
Dear Community: A Message from Elizabeth McGraw
– President, Board of Trustees, Berkshire Museum
But if the sale saves the Museum, isn’t it worth it?
There is no guarantee that this plan will save the Berkshire Museum. Similar plans to raise funds by selling collections at other museums, including the National Academy Museum and the Delaware Museum of Art, have failed to achieve their goals—and brought discredit to the institutions. Indeed, this plan could just as easily accelerate the Berkshire Museum’s financial decline by discouraging future grants, donations, memberships, and attendance. Also, since the community has not being asked to support the “new vision” through a fundraising campaign, there is no way to gauge if initial enthusiasm for the redesign will translate into actual support for the completed plan.
If the “new vision” is wanted and needed by the community, the Museum should be able to make a strong fundraising case and secure the needed resources.
The Museum claims it is facing an “existential threat?” Will it be forced to close if the sale does not go through?
The Museum has asserted that if it does not sell the artworks it will be forced to close in eight years, but officials there have offered no detailed proof to verify this claim. Meanwhile, ongoing analysis by independent experts have questioned this premise. We will update this page as more details become available.
Financial journalist Felix Salmon questioned the Museum’s “existential” claims in two posts on his blog “Cause & Effect”
September 1, 2017
Berkshire Museum: ‘Emergency overstated,’ nonprofit expert says– by Carrie Saldo, The Berkshire Eagle
August 23, 2017
The Berkshire Museum operating deficits – by Felix Salmon, Cause & Effect
August 21, 2017
The Berkshire Museum financials – by Felix Salmon, Cause & Effect