hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial November 2017



To save the museum, call off the auction


As this issue goes to press, the Berkshire Museum is in court defending its plan to sell off 40 works of art from its collection, beginning with a series of auctions scheduled this month at Sotheby’s in Manhattan.

The museum’s opponents in this legal tussle, including three sons of Norman Rockwell and lawyers from the state attorney general’s office, have asked a Berkshire Superior Court judge to halt the art sale until their claims can be heard.

The Rockwell sons contend that when their father donated two of the works the museum is trying to sell, he did so with the understanding that the museum would keep them in Berkshire County for future generations to enjoy. The museum’s lawyers say Rockwell’s donation contained no restriction barring the paintings’ future sale.

The museum seems favored to win this legal battle, as the evidence produced so far to support the Rockwells’ claim is less than compelling. (The attorney general’s office has yet to show its hand.)

For the museum, though, winning in court could be just one step toward a Pyrrhic victory.
Legally, the Berkshire Museum is a private nonprofit organization, and its leaders have wide latitude to manage – even dispose of – its assets for what they believe to be the good of the institution.

But morally and ethically, the museum also functions as a public trust, responsible for keeping and caring for the art in its collection for the benefit of the community it serves. A large segment of that community has made it clear that it strongly opposes the pending art sale, and by now it ought to be painfully obvious to all that if this month’s auctions go forward, the damage to the institution could be irreparable.

As a story in our September issue detailed, the conflict in Pittsfield began four months ago when the museum unveiled its “New Vision,” a plan to remake itself with new interactive exhibits and a stronger emphasis on science and natural history. The $60 million plan -- $20 million for renovations and $40 million for an endowment – would be financed mostly through the sale of art from the museum’s collection.

The reaction to this scheme has been overwhelmingly negative. Two national museum organizations condemned the Berkshire Museum’s plan, explaining that “one of the most fundamental and longstanding 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.” A third professional organization also protested the plan.

In the Berkshires, art lovers say the pieces to be sold are the jewels of the museum’s collection, including works by Rockwell, Alexander Calder, Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church.
The museum’s leaders say its New Vision is the result of a two-year process that involved 400 people from the community. But many of those who took part in the museum’s focus groups now say they weren’t aware the reinvention of the museum would be financed through a large sale of artwork. By the time the broader public learned of this plan, the art was on its way to Sotheby’s.
The museum’s board and director have cast the New Vision as vital to the institution’s survival. The museum has operated at a deficit for years, and its leaders warn it will run out of cash within six to eight years if something isn’t done.
That’s all the more reason for the museum to call off the auction and start trying to regain the faith of the community it serves -- by working with its critics to come up with a better plan.


Work for the Observer!