April 1, 2020
Berkshire Museum to Sell Art to Fund $60M Strategic Plan

July 27, 2017 — The Berkshire Museum, a Pittsfield nonprofit founded more than a century ago, earlier this week announced it plans to sell 40 artworks to help fund a $60 million plan that aims to strengthen links between science, history, and the arts, provoking objections from the museum community.

The Berkshire Museum said implementing the new strategy, based on nearly two years of work and research, will cost $20 million. In addition the museum said it create a new endowment of at least $40 million in order to provide financial stability.

The initiatives will be largely funded through the sale of artworks, which "have been deemed no longer essential to the museum’s new interdisciplinary programs," according to a statement released by the museum.

“The process undertaken by the museum to reach this point has been thoughtful and thorough, marked by intense community engagement and involvement,” says Van Shields, the museum’s executive director. “The vision for how the museum can best serve Pittsfield and the Berkshires is a reflection of the wishes of the community that surrounds us.”

Among the 40 works, from its collection of nearly 40,000 objects, that the museum plans to auction at Sotheby’s within the next six months are Norman Rockwell’s “Blacksmith’s Boy — Heel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop)” and “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” two paintings by Albert Bierstadt of the Hudson River School, a pair of works by sculptor Alexander Calder, a watercolor by Edouard Vuillard, and an oil painting by Benjamin West.

The museum said it anticipates to realize about $50 million from the auction.

The museum is looking to raise another $10 million from its New Vision capital campaign. To date, the campaign has garnered $5.4 million in pledges, including a lead gift of $2.5 million from the Feigenbaum Foundation.

However, a number of constituencies are not pleased with the plan to sell the artworks.

The American Alliance of Museums, which represents the museum community, and the Association of Art Museum Directors, an organization representing 243 directors of North America’s leading art museums, "are deeply opposed" to artwork sale, noting, "One of the most fundamental and long-standing 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."

Shields, quoted in an article in The Boston Globe, said, “We’re facing an existential threat, and we’re using all the resources we have to overcome that so we can continue to deliver our services to this beloved community far into the future." He added that the museum's endowment is valued at $8.6 million, which is not enough to service an ongoing structural deficit of about $1.15 million.

Peter Lafayette, a Berkshire Museum member who participated in the strategic planning process, said the plan is the "right one," according to an article in The Berkshire Eagle. "If the museum halls are closed there are no walls to hang the art on anyway. I challenge people to come up with what the alternative is. If not selling the art, how do you come up with a sustainable plan? This is probably the only way to do it."

Eight years ago, the trustees of Brandeis University in Waltham, citing endowment fund losses and a drop in donations, voted unanimously to close its Rose Art Museum. That decision was later reversed following widespread outcry against the move.

The Berkshire Museum plans to update its building with a spacious, sunlit entryway, and an innovative display of objects to enliven the central space. In addition, multi-media programming will be presented in a modern, more intimate space, with improved sound and projection capabilities.

Five thematic zones will define the visitor experience: Our Human Fabric, Make & Create, Shaping History, Perceive & Process, and Our Living World. Our Living World will feature a significantly expanded and improved aquarium, highlighting the streams and ponds of New England as well as exotic environments from around the globe.

Founded in 1903, the museum's collection includes with objects associated with the lives of well-known figures in American history, as well as works by Gilbert Stuart, Rembrandt Peale, John Singleton Copley, Thomas Sully, Paul CÚzanne, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and John Singer Sargent.

For the year ending June 30, 2015, the Berkshire Museum reported $4.3 million in revenue, of which $3 million came from contributions and grants, and $3.1 million in expenses, according to its most recently available federal tax filing.

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