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


News November 2017



State joins effort to block museum art sale


The Massachusetts attorney general’s office has joined a court battle to block the start this month of the planned auction of 40 works of art from the Berkshire Museum’s collection.

In a legal papers filed last month in Berkshire Superior Court, the office of Attorney General Maura Healey joined an effort by three sons of Norman Rockwell and several other Berkshire County residents to obtain a temporary restraining order halting the art sale, which is scheduled to begin Nov. 13.

Healey’s office said it is in the process of conducting a legal review of the planned art sale and has found “a number of aspects of the museum’s plans that raise concerns.” Allowing the sale to go forward before the state’s investigation is complete could result in “irreparable harm to the public interest,” Healey’s office argued.

The Berkshire Eagle reported that the attorney general’s office was drawn into the court action when it was named as a party of interest in a complaint filed by Rockwell’s sons – Thomas, Jarvis and Peter Rockwell – who say their father intended for the museum to permanently keep two paintings he donated to it. The Rockwells cite a 1958 letter from a former museum director saying the paintings, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and “Blacksmith’s Boy – Heel and Toe,” would become part of the museum’s “permanent” collection.

But the museum contends it is free to sell the paintings and that “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” in particular, “is not and was never subject to any restriction prohibiting its sale.”

The Rockwell paintings are among the works of art the museum revealed in July that it plans to sell. Proceeds from the sale would be used to bolster the museum’s endowment and help pay for a $20 million renovation that would shift the institution’s focus more to science and natural history.

Critics say the pieces to be sold are the jewels of the museum’s collection. Besides the Rockwell paintings, they include works by Alexander Calder, Albert Bierstadt and the Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church.

The planned art sale has drawn criticism from national museum organizations and spawned a series of public protests outside the Pittsfield museum in recent weeks. Save the Art, a local group formed in August to oppose the sale, has grown to include more than 1,200 members.
The museum announced in late October that seven works of art, half the number originally planned, will now be offered for sale at an initial auction on Nov. 13 at Sotheby’s in New York City. And just 19 of the 40 works originally slated for sale will now be offered in a series of auctions through March. A spokeswoman for the museum told the Eagle that Sotheby’s will announce plans for disposition of the remaining works “in due course.”

The court challenge to the art sale was the focus of a hearing Nov. 1 before Berkshire Superior Court Judge John Agostini. The Eagle reported that the judge spent much of the hearing questioning lawyers about whether the Rockwells and the other plaintiffs had legal standing to challenge the sale.

Afterward, Healey’s office filed an emergency motion asking the judge to allow the attorney general to become a plaintiff if he concludes that the other plaintiffs in the case lack standing.

In other news from around the region in October:


Artist scraps grand plan for Hudson
The performance artist Marina Abramovic has abandoned her ambitious plan to transform the former Community Tennis building in Hudson into an international center for performance art.
Abramovic bought the hulking old building at Columbia and Seventh streets about 10 years ago and announced plans in 2012 to redevelop it as the Marina Abramovic Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art. At the time, the project was projected to cost $15 million.
The Register-Star of Hudson, citing a public discussion in which Abramovic participated at a London gallery in early October, reported that the cost of the project had ballooned to $31 million, while a campaign using the online fund-raising site Kickstarter raised less than $1 million.
The Community Tennis building originally was built as a movie theater in the 1930s and later was converted into an indoor tennis facility. More recently it had incarnations as a bar and as an antiques market, but it has been vacant for many years.

Abramovic, who lives in New York City and also has a home near Chatham, is a leading figure in the field of performance art, a form of live creative expression that is intended to spark interactions between artists and audiences. Her works have been reliably provocative.

She commissioned Shohei Shigematsu and Rem Koolhaus of the international architecture firm OMA to redesign the interior of the Hudson building, creating a large central performance and viewing space with three levels of smaller rooms and chambers around it. The main space was to be used for “long duration” performance-art events of six hours or more.

“In one month, we raised $652,000 to give to Rem Koolhaus to make the plans,” Abramovic told her London audience. “So, he made the plans, and the plans were absolutely beautiful. … But when then he told how much to make it and he said, ‘Oh, this will cost $31 million,’ I just lost my breath.”

The cost, she added, was out of reach.
“I mean I, as a performance artist, couldn’t ever raise $31 million,” Abramovic said. “So, this institute stays as just a dream and as a kind of conceptual idea.”


Embarrassed supervisor sues own town
A town supervisor in Saratoga County has filed a legal claim against his own town, contending he was embarrassed and distressed by the disclosure of a harassment claim his former assistant brought against him.

The Times Union of Albany reported that Milton Supervisor Dan Lewza filed a notice of claim on Oct. 17, saying he suffered unfairly after the newspaper published an article about the settlement agreement the town reached with his former assistant. Lewza is seeking damages from the town for $140,000 for lost income and another $200,000 for embarrassment, humiliation and mental distress.

Lewza’s notice of claim blames a town councilwoman, Barbara Kerr, for leaking the settlement agreement to the newspaper. Kerr has denied leaking the document.

The Times Union says it obtained a heavily redacted copy of the settlement agreement through a Freedom of Information Act request. The newspaper is pursuing a court ruling that would allow it to receive and unredacted copy and is attempting to find out how much the former assistant was paid to settle the harassment claim.

Lewza, a Republican, is not seeking re-election this month.
Kerr, who lost the Republican primary to succeed Lewza but is running on the Reform Party line for supervisor, has called on the incumbent to resign immediately.

Scott Ostrander, who won the primary and is now the Republican candidate to succeed Lewza, told the Times Union he doesn’t know anything about the settlement agreement and has no opinion on whether Lewza should step down.

“It happened before I went on the Town Board,” Ostrander said. “It has nothing to do with me.”


Rutland farm group will disband

The Rutland Area Farm & Food Link plans to cease operations by the end of this year after more than decade of connecting Rutland County’s small-scale farms with local consumers.
The nonprofit group’s president, Larry Courcelle, announced the decision on the organization’s Web site last month, citing “ongoing staff and funding challenges.”

The Rutland Herald reported that the group had been unable to hire a new executive director after its last director left in the spring. The group runs five programs that link people in the Rutland area to local produce, and Courcelle said negotiations are under way to have other area organizations take over these projects.

One of the projects, Farm Fresh Connect, through which people can order food online from area farmers, will be continued through the Vermont Country Store in North Clarendon.

The food group also runs the Glean Team, through which surplus produce from local farms is delivered to area food pantries, and it has published an annual “Locally Grown Guide” of local farms and food producers.


Elder ‘village’ forum set in Columbia County
A Columbia County group is planning a public forum this month to seek feedback about its effort to build a local volunteer network to help elderly people live independently in their homes as they age.

The Village Movement of Northern Columbia County will meet at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19, at the Malden Bridge Community Center, at 1087 Albany Turnpike in Malden Bridge.

The local group aims to organize as a local affiliate of the national Village to Village movement, a nonprofit organization that started about 15 years ago with the formation of Beacon Hill Village in Boston. Individual “villages” connected with the movement are set up as local, grassroots nonprofit organizations based on volunteerism and mutual assistance, providing seniors with assistance handling household tasks or providing rides to medical appointments and stores.
The village movement was the focus of an article in the September issue of the Observer. The northern Columbia County group can be reached by e-mail at villageofnortherncolumbiacount@gmail.com.

-- Compiled by Fred Daley