In 2017, the Berkshire Museum Board of Trustees made precedent-setting decisions that led to the sale of the museum’s most valued art. The impact of this continues to reverberate throughout the community and beyond.
The decisions that led to the sale had a long history and were not unanimous. On May 22, 2017, the board voted to authorize board president Elizabeth McGraw to draw up a consignment agreement with Sotheby’s. The Collection Committee then voted to sell the collection on July 11, 2017, with 9 out of 14 members present. In addition to the board members who served on this committee, museum director Van Shields and staff members Nina Garlington, Craig Langlois, Logan Recchia and Jason Verchot were also present. At the same meeting, the committee approved changes to the collections policy in order to allow the 40 work to be sold. Minutes released by the museum show that no discussion took place. The following day the full board approved the motion to sell, with 17 in favor of the deaccession, 1 abstaining, and 4 absent.
That vote was the culmination of nearly two-years’ planning that museum leaders began in December 2015 with the help of attorney Mark Gold, a vocal advocate for dismantling long-accepted guidelines for ethical deaccession practice. Board president Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw indicated at the time that a “committee of the whole” studied deaccessioning as an option among other ideas. That research was conducted on “parallel tracks” while consultants hired by the museum met with 400 invited community members to pitch a “New Vision” for the museum that emphasized interactive exhibits and science over art—but without revealing that the new plan would require selling its most valuable and cherished art.
The decision to sell the art was made public on July 12, but the museum named only two paintings by Norman Rockwell. “The complete list of artwork, which includes Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art, will be released by Sotheby’s sometime prior to [the auction], according to the museum.” The museum only released the information to the public on July 24, after public outcry, reversing its original decision to keep it private.
See the timeline of events published by the Berkshire Eagle for more information.
It is interesting, if not significant, that a majority of the board members serving at the time of the deaccession have since resigned. As of 2021, only 2 trustees who voted for the deaccession remain, currently serving as board president and vice-president. Three members of the full 22-member board have continued on, along with three listed honorary life trustees.
The present board continues to defend the sale, as does current director Jeff Rodgers, hired in 2019 with full understanding of what occurred at the Berkshire Museum. Also of note, retired board president, Van Shields, and former president Elizabeth McGraw participated in a recent Syracuse University Law School symposium, “Deaccessioning After 2020,” (March 2021). Co-organized by attorney Mark Gold, this panel was a transparent attempt to retroactively justify the sale.