October 23, 2018
 
Berkshire Museum Earns $42M from Art Auction...and Enmity

May 28, 2018 — The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, which last month won court approval to sell some of its art in order to fortify its finances, last week sold 13 works to earn $42 million...and the enmity of a national, professional museum organization, in addition to the ire of the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Following approval by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to proceed with the sale, the Berkshire Museum sold, through auction by Sotheby's in New York City, one of its most valuable possessions, Norman Rockwell's Blacksmith Boy: Heel and Toe, as part of an effort to raise $55 million.

The May 23 auction was marked by protests from an advocacy group called Save the Art–Save the Museum, which maintains that the sale diminishes the cultural heritage of Berkshire County.

Two days later, on Friday, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) imposed sanctions on the Berkshire Museum, which it said resulted from the museum's decision "to use the proceeds from recent art sales to support operating budgets or expansion initiatives, a decision that violates one of the core principles of art museums. These actions are in opposition to AAMD’s policy that such funds must be used only to support acquisitions of art.”

The sanctions ask each of AAMD's 243 members to refrain from lending works of art to, or borrowing works of art from, the Berkshire Museum, and to also refrain from collaborating with the museum on exhibitions.

Carol Bosco Baumann, spokeswoman for the Berkshire Museum, called the sanctions "regrettable," according to The New York Times, noting, “The possibility of sanctions was carefully considered by the board when deciding whether to deaccession any works to secure and sustain the museum’s future. We determined then and strongly believe now that to protect our most important asset—the museum’s open doors—it was necessary."

Earlier in the week, according to The Berkshire Eagle, the museum notified the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC), a state agency which disburses grants funded by the legislature, that it no longer wanted a $22,100 grant that the MCC had held back last September while the legal battle over the proposed sale was in full tilt.

Baumann said officials decided to let current auctions at Sotheby's take place without seeking restoration of the grant.

MCC Executive Director Anita Walker last fall alleged that the museum's trustees were failing their duty of stewardship by engaging in the sale.

"We believe that public trust is the foundation of the institution of the nonprofit cultural organization," Walker said at the time, The Eagle reported. "Once that starts to erode, then I think our institutions are eroded."

The museum canceled a planned October strategy session with Walker's team after Walker publicly criticized the museum.

The controversy erupted after the Berkshire Museum trustees last year adopted a new strategy, developed over nearly two years, to strengthen links between science, history, and the arts and provide financial stability. A consultant hired by the museum determined it needed $25.6 million to stabilize its operations. Proceeds from the sale of all 40 works has been earmarked to fund the strategy and create a new endowment.

Following the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision last month to allow the sale, a spokeswoman for the attorney general said, "We are pleased that [yesterday's] decision will help to ensure that the Berkshire Museum can continue to fulfill its broad mission for Pittsfield, Berkshire County, and the general public."

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