Frequently Asked Questions
What was the sale of art at the Berkshire Museum all about?
In 2017, the Museum sent forty of its most valuable and important artworks to auction despite a large public outcry regionally and nationally.
What led to this? The Berkshire Museum board had been planning this move for years before any announcements were made. The factors that contributed were:
- Attorney Mark Gold, an advisor to the museum in the years preceding the announcement of the sale, had been carving out a professional specialty in deaccession policy—arguing in articles and books for the dismantling of the traditional practices that had guided nonprofit museums for decades in protecting public collections for the public’s benefit. Arguably, his advisory role with the museum gave him an arena to promote and test his agenda. If a major deaccession made for purposes other than protecting the existing collection was carried out and legally upheld (as it subsequently was), it would become a precedent-setting addition to case law.
- The Berkshire Museum, like many small museums, had operated with a deficit for several years and they made much of this. “Keeping the doors open” became a rallying rationale for the sale. However, it was demonstrated by several different financial analyses that the museum’s situation was not dire in the ways claimed.
- Fundraising in the world of regional nonprofits had become increasingly competitive, while forces in the art market had made the museum’s collection increasingly valuable. Instead of making an effort to fundraise, the Museum decided, possibly with Gold’s input and the prospect of a quick fix that would net an astounding $40–$60 million, to monetize the heart of the collection, claiming it would “provide institutional stability for the next 100 years.” Note that the museum had not led a capital campaign since 2008 and had no director of development on staff.
- In order to justify the liquidation of the collection at the heart of the Museum, the board of trustees, most likely with the assistance of Gold, reoriented the Museum’s mission and developed a “New Vision”—a plan highlighting science and technology programs for children that would rely on a trendy, modern embrace of interactive technology in lieu of direct experience of objects. This plan also involved substantial architectural alteration, including the destruction of the historic Crane Room designed by Sterling Crane, Alexander Calder’s father, and most of the entire interior of the museum to make new space for the interactive displays. The New Vision was a tool through which they tried to legitimize this carefully constructed decision. They formed pre-selected focus groups to gauge and ostensibly demonstrate community interest in the children’s science museum plan. However, it was not disclosed to participants that funding the plan required selling the most valuable and beloved art in the collection or destroying the Crane Room.
- Ultimately, they contracted with Sotheby’s to sell the art, in a clandestine and unprofessional process:
- The board publicized their plan, informing the community and the press, only after arrangements with the auction house were finalized and the art had been shipped;
- They failed to have curatorial expertise representing the Berkshire Museum’s interests at the time of Sotheby’s on-site inspection of the collection. Nor did they seek advice from expert curators in the region;
- They removed professional curatorial staff, whose job would have required them to assess the works slated for deaccession in terms of their impact on the collection and their importance to both the museum’s identity and the community.
- They ignored and delegitimized the extensive pushback from the local community, as well as that from professional organizations and individuals specializing in various aspects of museum governance and finance.
All of this was an unethical betrayal of the board’s fiduciary responsibility to the very community they are entrusted to serve—and a direct assault on the Public Trust.
Why were these works so important?
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.
Why is such a sale considered unethical?
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.
Don’t museums sell things all the time?
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.
Was the Berkshire Museum censured for its unethical actions?
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.
Why did this become a national issue?
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.
Where does the situation now stand?
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.
How is this relevant to museums and communities currently facing similar pressures?
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.
How will the AAMD and AAM’s relaxing ethical guidelines impact other museums’ deaccessioning practices?
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.
Does the recent change in guidelines now legitimize the Berkshire Museum’s deaccessions?
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.
Why did STA and community efforts fail to stop the museum from selling the 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.