These artworks were among the Berkshire Museum’s finest treasures, specific to our local history, and an unparalleled asset for a small community which, for many, meant truly great art within walking distance. The art collection, which was first formed in the late 19th and early 20th century by Berkshire Museum founder Zenas Crane and others, was comprised of valuable and important work covering a range of cultures and time periods. It grew over the years through thoughtful acquisitions by professional staff, as well as generous donations of artists and collectors. Most significant among the 40 works sold at auction were two iconic Norman Rockwell paintings donated by the artist: Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950) and Blacksmith Boy: Heel and Toe, (also known as Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop) (1940), a collection of notable Hudson River School landscapes dating from the original collection, and two early works by sculptor Alexander Calder, the first of his works to be acquired by a museum in 1933.
The holdings of any public museum become part of the Public Trust, which means that art and artifacts are held for the public good and belong to the public in perpetuity. The Berkshire Museum sale directly violated this widely held standard. While the laws supporting the Public Trust are too often inadequate, professional museum organizations provide guidelines to ensure that institutions will do their jobs as stewards of their holdings. Donors entrust their gifts to institutions’ care, with the understanding that they will be exhibited for public enjoyment. While there are exceptions to donors’ arrangements, non-monetary gifts such as art objects are not fungible assets to cover financial shortfalls. Active, energetic fundraising is the customary and appropriate solution to budget deficits. The Berkshire Museum, however, had no development department from 2008 on, limiting capacity to launch a capital campaign. Without any forewarning, when the museum announced its “need” to sell the works, the community was largely taken by surprise.
Yes, museums often sell art and objects to strengthen their collections, but not to cover operating expenses. It is permissible for museums to periodically review and deaccession objects of lesser quality, works that are damaged, duplicates, and/or works of questionable authenticity. The proceeds of such sales are appropriately used for collection enhancement or direct care, following the guidelines set forth by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). Disregarding these guidelines results in professional censure.
Note: In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, AAM and AAMD guidelines on the deployment of deaccessioned funds have been temporarily loosened for Museums facing hardship.
In the aftermath of the sale, the AAM and the AAMD issued a condemnation and applied sanctions to the Berkshire Museum. Censure by these national associations isolates the Berkshire Museum from the greater museum community; it cannot borrow or lend works from other institutions and are typically ineligible for foundation support. Additionally, the museum lost its valued status as a Smithsonian Affiliate and the Massachusetts Cultural Council limited the Museum’s access to state funding.
A collection of this scope and quality, its location in a small city, and its unique value to such a community was exceptional, and emblematic of American ideals valuing egalitarian access to arts and culture. To put it up for sale was outrageous and unprecedented. The clandestine maneuverings of the Museum’s board of directors added to the controversy, feeding the suspicion that even they knew that what they were attempting to do was wrong.
Community outrage at the Berkshire Museum’s actions led to formation of Save the Art, which organized protests in Pittsfield, Boston, and New York. STA’s active media campaigns publicized the story and helped fund legal battles in the Pittsfield and Boston courts. Recognizing the unprecedented nature of the sale and its profound implications, the New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Los Angeles Times, among many other national publications, reported on and examined the story.
While the Berkshire Museum story is not unique in the current environment where non-profits face economic pressures, its flagrant disregard of long-established standards threatens public collections across the country. Museums, libraries, and historical societies are all negatively affected by the repercussions of the sale, as not-for profit boards now have a precedent, and therefore freer rein to dip into the public trust when in financial trouble.
Too expensive in the current market for most other museums to acquire, these works, when offered for sale, primarily go into private hands, unlikely to be seen in public again. Of the twenty-two works ultimately sold by the Berkshire Museum, only two were purchased by public museums.
Neither community outcry from Save the Art and many community members, nor two litigations against the Museum, successfully stopped the sale. Twenty-two of the forty works of art consigned to Sotheby’s, NY, were ultimately sold at auction and through private sale, for a total of @$53 million. Having reached the value limit established by the Massachusetts Attorney General, eighteen works of art were subsequently returned to the Berkshire Museum. Sadly, the art that was most valuable and relevant to the founding interdisciplinary mission was sold, without any regard for prioritizing what might serve the Museum’s future exhibitions and programs, nor its history and regional importance.
STA continues to prefer community-based solutions that are responsive to community needs. We support vigorous, good-faith dialogue defining what those needs are. There is currently potential for a greatly expanded role for museums in communities of all sizes. We envision innovative, imaginative exhibitions, programs, and collection development that reflect local interests and demographics as well as wider issues of cultural and social significance. Intensive fundraising is essential, particularly in view of the challenges presently facing museums. STA recognizes that financial hardships presented by the current environment will not be easily solved on the local level, and our hope is that museum advocates lobby for increased funding from city, state, and federal sources. The future health and viability of our valued institutions may depend on it.
In April of 2021, in order to help institutions in weathering the Covid-19 pandemic, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) temporarily relaxed their guidelines governing the use of funds obtained from deaccessioning. Click this link to read the resolutions.
Even with the relaxed guidelines, museums must still abide by donors’ intent, their institution’s governing by-laws, and applicable regulations for charitable trusts in their state. However, the new rules, though temporary, further erode the idea of the Public Trust, loosening protections and leaving the door open to abuse. The publicity surrounding the Berkshire Museum situation brought the issue of unethical deaccession into the public narrative, potentially legitimizing the decisions of others facing similar hardship, not only during the pandemic, but into the future.
No! The Berkshire Museum controversy began during the summer of 2017, and continued through 2018, preceding Covid-19 and the economic pressures that resulted from museum closures. Thus, there is absolutely no basis in the argument that the AAMD and AAM’s loosening of deaccession guidelines retroactively justifies the actions taken by the leadership of the museum. The sale of Pittsfield’s treasured art collection resulted from years of financial mismanagement, a clandestine, dishonest plan to monetize it, and an attempt to cover it up through a “New Vision” requiring a changed mission marginalizing art.
The Berkshire Museum had no interest in opening to community input or in finding a solution that did not involve selling the community’s art. The sequence of actions taken by the Museum leadership indicates that the plan was long in the making, part of a larger agenda that had its own reasons and momentum.
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.