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


News May 2018



Judge clears the way for museum to sell art


The Berkshire Museum has cleared the last legal hurdle in its quest to sell off $55 million worth of artwork from its collection.

A justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court signed off April 5 on a deal reached in February by the museum and the state attorney general’s office allowing the sales to proceed. Justice David A. Lowy did not require any independent financial oversight of the art sales – a step one group of opponents had sought.

Elizabeth McGraw, the chairwoman of the museum’s board of trustees, issued a statement calling the court ruling “great news for the people of Berkshire County and everyone who visits the Berkshire Museum.”

“We recognize that this decision may not please those who have opposed the museum’s plans,” she added. “Still, we hope people will be able to move forward in a constructive way to help us secure and strengthen the future of this museum.”

But critics said the ruling will cost the local community access to some great works of art while setting a bad precedent that could make it easier for other museums to sell off artwork to raise money.

“We regret the judge’s disregard of public trust in which the museum held its collections,” the group Save the Art said in a statement. “The impending sale will not only diminish Pittsfield as a city claiming to be of cultural import to Berkshire County, but will reverberate destructively for years through collections similarly held in trust through the state and country.”

The conflict erupted last summer when the museum revealed that it planned to sell up to 40 pieces from its collection – including works by Norman Rockwell, Frederic Church, Alexander Calder and Albert Bierstadt -- and use the proceeds to stabilize its endowment and renovate its building in downtown Pittsfield.

Its leaders have said the sale will help the museum shift to a “new vision” focused on science and natural history – and that without the infusion of cash, the institution would run out of money in six to eight years

The plan drew criticism from local art lovers, including three sons of Norman Rockwell, and from national museum organizations that said it is a violation of ethical guidelines for any museum to sell off works from its collection to cover short-term cash needs.

By last fall, state Attorney General Maura Healey intervened in the case and convinced a judge to halt the art sale, originally set to begin in November with an auction at Sotheby’s, while her office examined the museum’s plans and finances.

But in February, Healey’s office abruptly reversed course, saying it now agreed with the museum’s leaders on the need to sell enough artwork to raise $55 million.

In his ruling, Lowy cited Healey’s investigation and eventual assent to the art sale, writing that “the museum has satisfied its burden of establishing that it has become impossible or impracticable to administer the museum strictly in accordance with its charitable purpose.”
Under an agreement approved by Healey’s office and now by the courts, the museum will sell what appears to be its most valuable piece by far, Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” to the new Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. The deal calls for the painting to be displayed for at least 18 months at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge before leaving the Berkshires.

The Berkshire Eagle reported that Lowy’s ruling arrived one day before the museum faced a deadline to supply promotional materials for an art auction to be held this month at Sotheby’s in New York City. Nearly all of the works the museum wants to sell were already shipped to Sotheby’s last year.

Under the deal with Healey’s office, the art sales will stop when proceeds to the museum reach $55 million. The museum may use the first $50 million without restriction but must hold anything beyond that in a fund to support its collection.

In other news from around the region in April:


Intent debated in school-shooting plot
Vermont legislators are debating changes to the state’s criminal laws after the state Supreme Court ruled last month that the suspect accused of plotting a school shooting in Fair Haven could not continue to be held without bail.

The court’s ruling led to the dismissal of attempted murder charges against 18-year-old Jack Sawyer of Poultney, and by the end of April he had been released to the custody of his father.
Sawyer, a former student at Fair Haven Union High School, was arrested Feb. 15, the day after a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 people were killed. Police said he exchanged text messages with an acquaintance in which he praised the Florida killings as “natural selection,” and an investigation revealed he had kept a journal for months detailing his plans to carry out a similar attack in Fair Haven.

But the Supreme Court ruled April 11 that prosecutors did not have much evidence that Sawyer actually tried to kill anyone, because he could have called off his alleged plans at any time.
The Rutland Herald reported that by late April, in response to the court ruling, lawmakers were considering a bill that would make it illegal to possess a deadly weapon “with the intent to injure another.” The misdemeanor would be punishable by up to two years in prison – or up to 10 years if the defendant planned to attack multiple people.

The bill also would criminal charges against anyone who takes “substantial steps” that “threaten any civilian population with mass destruction, mass killings, or kidnapping.”

-- Compiled by Fred Daley