Deja Vu

The di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art. 
Courtesy of the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art.

by Leslie Ferrin

Deja Vu – for those of us who worked so hard on Save the Art – Save the Museum in behalf of the art collection at the Berkshire Museum, the news that Di Rosa Foundation has decided to sell art as the only solution to financial woes comes as no surprise. The Berkshire Museum executed a precedent setting sale in 2018 and while there are obvious differences between the two institutions and their collections, the choice to sell to save an institution is the common ground. Museums that adhere to selling art and accepted professional standards typically reinvest in the collection. These institutions are likewise under increased pressure to use sales to reinvigorate or shift the collections, however the two types of sales should not be conflated. The Berkshire Museum’s chosen path of exchanging a collection for financial stability is a slippery slope and one that the Berkshires are still sliding down. Two years later, despite wide international attention and outcry, expensive and protracted legal battles, Sotheby’s succeeded in its sale of important regional treasures and opened pandora’s box. The Berkshire Museum’s name now appears as a cautionary tale every time the word “deacession” appears regardless of where or why. Two years later, our museum is no closer to being a vibrant viable and sustainable museum, despite the influx of cash, our community remains divided with former leadership and staff dispersed. As we’ve all seen, it is leadership that matters when problems become insurmountable. Those of us who came together as Save the Art – Save the Museum express solidarity with our colleagues in CA and sincerely hope they succeed in slowing down the march to market of this important regional collection.

Napa Museum Plan to Deaccession Art Works Raises Art Community’s Ire

The di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, California

August 20, 2019; The San Francisco Chronicle

The board of the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, located in Napa, California, has made a big decision, and in the process angered a number of artists. Specifically, the board of the Rene and Veronica di Rosa Foundation, has decided to sell the bulk of its collection. The board says that its budget cannot support the costs of caring for the collection. In a letter reprinted in the Chronicle, director Robert Sain writes that the museum intends to use revenues from deaccessioning to “grow the endowment to provide a sustainable future of the organization, including the proper care of the arts that will remain in the collection, which has now, at great expense, been safely housed in climate controlled storage.” The alternative, Sain claims, is to “close our doors forever.”

But many in the arts community are unpersuaded by such explanations. Nearly 150 artists, galleries, and other art world stakeholders have signed a letter communicating their opposition to the sale of art works. They claim the di Rosa collection is “the only collection in the world dedicated exclusively to the history of post-World War II art in Northern California in all its diversity of media, gender, race, and philosophy.”

The di Rosa museum does not actively collect work anymore; it contains about 1,600 works collected by Rene and Veronica di Rosa before Rene’s death in 2010. The mission stated on its Form 990 calls the collection “the most significant holding of [San Francisco] Bay Area art in the world.”

Works by Berkshire Artist Nancy Graves in permanent collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Excerpted from the New York Times “Forms of Fantasy”
Cathleen McGuigan, DEC. 6, 1987

November 4, 2018

“Variability of Similar Forms”, Nancy Graves on view in the permanent collection of the Detroit Institute of Art. – This Berkshire native’s career was cut short but her output during her lifetime made her one of the most important sculptors of her generation. During this year of the woman when museums and galleries are digging into the untold history of female artists and offering prime spots in their schedules in an effort to diversify their programs, a survey of her work would be a natural for a regional museum to take on.

Continue reading “Works by Berkshire Artist Nancy Graves in permanent collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts.”

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:

The Berkshire Museum is an Outlier in a Changing and Thriving Arts Economy

Paige Smith, Daily Hampshire Gazette
May 4, 2018

BOSTON — While Massachusetts cultural institutions are for the most part thriving, the struggles of outliers like the Berkshire Museum have initiated conversations about the right approach to preserving fixtures of the arts economy.

The fiscal chasm between different regional institutions — like the Pittsfield facility and the Fitchburg Art Museum — and an internationally renowned brand, like the Museum of Fine Arts, is vast and well-known. And it’s not likely to get better soon.

Deaccessioning: The good, the bad, and the illegal

by Felix Salmon, Cause & Effect
October 23, 2017

I’ve been clear for some months now that I consider the Berkshire Museum’s current deaccessioning plan to be a very, very bad idea. But is it illegal?

The opponents of the sale would certainly love it to be, and now they have their wish: a lawsuit has been filed (the whole thing is here, if you want to read it for yourself), and it’s as strong as anybody could have hoped.

The Lost Masterpieces of Norman Rockwell Country

The Berkshire Museum’s most valuable art works are two paintings that Norman Rockwell personally donated. Photo by Underwood Archives / Getty

by Felix Salmon, The New Yorker
October 4, 2017

The Berkshires, in western Massachusetts, are one of those tourist destinations where you feel the need to set your watch back fifty years or so. The region is conservative, with a small “c,” sprinkled with small farms, rolling hills, clapboard houses. It is, quite literally, Norman Rockwell country—for the last quarter century of his life, Rockwell lived in Berkshire County.

In recent weeks, however, the oldest museum in Pittsfield, the Berkshires’ largest town, has divided the local community, prompted an investigation by the Massachusetts attorney general, and placed this bucolic county at the center of a firestorm.

Why a Massachusetts museum selling its prized Norman Rockwell painting should worry art museums everywhere

The Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell 40 works of art, including one of Norman Rockwell’s best paintings, to pay bills has generated protests. ©2017 Photo by Gillian Jones / AP

Christopher Knight, LA Times Art Critic
August 23, 2017

Maybe it’s the record-breaking summer temperatures, exacerbated by global warming, but some art museum folks in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts seem to be suffering from heatstroke. Plainly they’ve lost their minds.

In late July, the Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield’s local newspaper, reported that the Berkshire Museum, the town’s long-struggling museum of history, science and art, finished off a two-year self-examination by deciding to sell off 40 of the most notable paintings, sculptures and drawings from a collection not known to be overstuffed with outstanding art.