September 23, 2019
Berkshire Museum Completes Sale of Artwork, Raising $53M

November 29, 2018 — The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, which had fought a long battle involving members of the public, art associations, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, heirs of Norman Rockwell, and the attorney general to win the right to sell artworks to fund a plan aimed at creating long term financial stability, on Tuesday announced it has completed the sale of 22 pieces of art, raising $53.25 million.

The agreement with the attorney general's office allowed the Berkshire Museum to sell up to 40 works, from more than 40,000 in its collection, approved for deaccession in groups or tranches, to raise up to $55 million for the museum’s endowment and needed repairs and improvements to the building. With the final works in the second tranche purchased at auction in November, a total of 22 works were sold raising $53.25 million.

Included was the sale of two of its most famous works, Norman Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and “Blacksmith’s Boy.”

“We are moving forward having secured the future of this museum for generations to come,” said Elizabeth McGraw, president of the museum's board of trustees. “Our work ahead is focused on making this museum ever more interesting, inspiring, and engaging to the broad community in the region it serves and consistent with our unchanged mission.”

The museum said work will move forward on needed repairs to its building, with capital improvements expected to begin in the Spring, including waterproofing to better protect the collection, and improvements to sewer lines and the museum’s loading dock.

Additional plans for improved and enhanced exhibition and programming spaces, including an expanded and upgraded Aquarium, are still in planning stages.

“Our goal is to transform a more than 100-year-old building in need of repairs and upgrades to function as a 21st century museum,” said McGraw. “The museum will continue to include art, science, and history. Objects from our collection will be presented in a new way that allows these three areas to combine in exhibits that provide new interpretations and relevance to historical objects.”

The ruckus erupted after the Berkshire Museum trustees 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 had been earmarked to fund the strategy and create a new endowment.

The planned sale sparked protest from the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which said professional practice rules prohibit a museum from using the proceeds from sales of art to fund anything other than new acquisitions, as well as from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which argued that the plan is "a violation of the museum's public trust."

Legal challenges, including one by a group that included Rockwell’s heirs, led to a series of court hearings, which culminated in May when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the museum could proceed to sell the art at auction.

The attorney general's office said the sale would "help to ensure that the Berkshire Museum can continue to fulfill its broad mission for Pittsfield, Berkshire County...and reaffirms the attorney general’s role in protecting charitable missions and restrictions."

The AAMD had asked its 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. On Tuesday, the AAMD Executive Director Christine Anagnos said via an email, that the AAMD “has no further statement on the activities of the Berkshire Museum,” according to a report in The Boston Globe.

The Berkshire Museum was established in 1903 by Zenas Crane, who purchased many of the museum’s first acquisitions, including a sizable group of paintings from the Hudson River School. In 2008, the museum completed Phase II of an extensive renovation that included replacement of the copper roof, the 3,000-square-foot Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation, and installation of a heating, ventilation, and cooling system.

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