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


News July 2018



Museum plans more art sales as director leaves


After the auction of more than a dozen works of art from its collection failed to raise as much cash as expected, the Berkshire Museum announced in late June that it plans to sell off nine more pieces in the coming months.

Within days of that announcement, the museum also revealed that its executive director, Van Shields, had retired effective immediately. Shields, who was hired in 2011 and received a $138,000 salary last year, became a chief proponent of the museum’s plan to “monetize” its collection with the goal of replenishing its endowment, renovating its building and shifting its focus to natural history.

The Berkshire Eagle reported that the sale of an initial round of 13 works of art in April and May netted $47 million – or $8 million less than the amount the museum says it needs to sustain itself.
Under the terms of a deal it reached earlier this year with the state attorney general’s office, the museum said it will now sell nine additional works in hopes of raising the extra funds needed to attain its $55 million goal.

The museum said it will sell seven of the works – including Albert Bierstadt’s painting “Giant Redwood Trees of California” and Alexander Calder’s mobile sculpture “Dancing Torpedo Shape” – in private sales, rather than at auction. Museum officials said they hope to find buyers who’d keep the works available for public viewing.

The works at issue, as well as those already sold, are all among the 40 pieces the museum revealed last summer that it intended to de-accession -- a decision that set off months of public protests and legal challenges. Critics say the works being sold include the jewels of the museum’s collection.

Opponents have argued that museum officials are violating a public trust by selling off artwork that in many cases was donated to the museum with the understanding it would be kept in the Berkshires for local people to enjoy. The museum’s decision to sell artwork from its collection to cover financial deficits has been called unethical by national professional organizations -- including the Association of Art Museum Directors, which in May urged its nearly 250 members not to engage in art exchanges with the Berkshire Museum.

The local citizens group Save the Art-Save the Museum issued a statement criticizing the museum’s choice of works for the new round of sales.

“In light of the museum’s recent call for healing and promises of transparency, it is distressing that they have chosen to sell the most important of the remaining art,” the group said.

After the news of Shields’ departure broke several days later, the group urged the museum’s trustees to postpone further art sales until a new executive director is hired.

The museum said it has retained David W. Ellis, a former president of the Museum of Science in Boston, to serve as its interim director while it searches for a permanent successor to Shields.
In Pittsfield, Shields championed a “new vision” for the Berkshire Museum that would shift its focus more toward science and natural history, with an emphasis on new interactive exhibits.
The Berkshire Eagle published a lengthy investigative report in September that raised questions about Shields’ 14-year tenure at the Culture & Heritage Museums in Rock Hill, S.C. Shields was fired from that position in August 2011, one month before he arrived at the Berkshire Museum.
The newspaper reported that Shields’ efforts in South Carolina to transform the focus of a regional museum “crashed amid allegations of bad management, inadequate fund raising, institutional secrecy, loose spending” and other factors.

Two days after the Eagle’s story appeared last fall, the Berkshire Museum issued a statement saying its trustees “are unanimous in their support for Executive Director Van Shields.”

In other news from around the region in June:

Judge tosses case against district attorney
A judge has tossed out a criminal indictment against Rensselaer County District Attorney Joel Abelove, ruling that the state attorney general’s office did not have jurisdiction to prosecute Abelove on a charge of perjury.

But the attorney general’s office signaled in late June that it would appeal the judge’s ruling, ensuring that a legal cloud will continue to hover over Abelove as he campaigns for a second four-year term in November. The state had accused Abelove of perjury and official misconduct in his handling of the investigation into the fatal police shooting of an unarmed drunken-driving suspect.

The Times Union of Albany reported that in dismissing the case against Abelove, acting state Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Nichols “did not delve into the strength of the evidence supporting the charges.”

Instead, Nichols ruled on the narrow point that the attorney general’s exceeded its statutory jurisdiction in bringing a felony perjury charge against Abelove. The judge also dismissed two misdemeanor counts of official misconduct that he said were “inextricably intertwined” with the perjury charge.

The charges against Abelove were brought in December after the state spent a year looking into the death of Edson Thevenin, a 37-year-old black man from Colonie who was shot eight times by a Troy police sergeant in an April 2016 traffic stop.

The state contends Abelove short-circuited the inquiry into Thevinen’s death by hurriedly bringing the case before a grand jury, which cleared the Troy officer of any criminal wrongdoing. The official misconduct charges alleged Abelove effectively granted the Troy officer immunity from prosecution and also failed to let the grand jury hear testimony from two civilian witnesses who said they didn’t believe the officer was in imminent danger when he opened fire.
-- Compiled by Fred Daley