July 19, 2018
Berkshire Museum Art Sale Plan Provokes Mass. Cultural Council

September 21, 2017 — The Berkshire Museum, a Pittsfield nonprofit founded more than a century ago that announced plans in July to sell 40 artworks to help generate $60 million to stabilize its finances, has sparked the ire of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a major source of grant funding across the state.

The Berkshire Museum said it anticipates realizing about $50 million from an auction of 40 works of art, which will enable it to implement a new strategy costing $20 million and creating a new endowment of at least $40 million to provide financial stability.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) yesterday issued a statement that it "strongly opposes this plan as a violation of the museum's public trust" and urged the museum to reverse the decision and explore alternatives to stabilize its finances, expressing willingness to work with the museum to improve its finances.

"We recognize the extraordinary challenges of operating a nonprofit museum with an extensive, diverse collection in a highly competitive philanthropic environment. And we appreciate the willingness of the Berkshire Museum and its volunteer board to address these challenges to ensure the institution's long-term viability," MCC said. The museum has run annual operating deficits for a decade, an unhealthy and unsustainable practice."

Elizabeth McGraw, board president of the museum, in a web posting said, "We understand why some are protesting the sale of those 40 beautiful pieces of art. Some individuals are frustrated because they think that a pause in the sale would lead to a different financial path somehow changing this harsh reality. The board has spent over two years exploring that very thing. However, the consequence of a delay with the auction could be that the museum may close even sooner."

MCC, citing two independent analyses and its own review of the museum's audited financial statements, said the museum could put itself in a healthy operating position without deaccessioning art.

MCC, which is funded by the legislature, provides funding to nonprofits, whose tax-exempt status makes them eligible to receive grants from the MCC, as well as charitable donations from others.

"In return our nonprofit museums have a special responsibility to act as stewards for our Commonwealth's unique cultural heritage for the benefit of our citizens today and for future generations," the MCC said. "For these reasons and many others, museum deaccessioning of artworks and cultural assets should be done only in the context of a carefully developed collections plan, sound institutional planning and, where appropriate, public input."

Noting that museum collections should never be treated as disposable financial assets, MCC said, "The Berkshire Museum disregarded these important guidelines in its deaccessioning process. As a result major national accrediting organizations for both art and history museums have condemned its plan, and the museum was forced to sever its affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution and the benefits that came with it."

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 strongly opposed to the sale of artwork sale, asserting that "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."

Van Shields, the museum’s executive director, quoted in The Boston Globe this summer, 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."

Among the important works the museum said it plans to auction at Sotheby’s 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.

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