SUBSCRIBE

Berkshire Museum faces new legal challenge

Michael Lavin Flower

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield.

By Globe Staff 

For the second time in a week, opponents of the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell 40 artworks in its collection to ease financial pressures have mounted a legal challenge to block the sale.

In a complaint filed in state court in Boston Thursday, former Berkshire Museum member Elizabeth Weinberg and current members James and Kristin Hatt argue that the sale “will do irreparable harm to [the museum’s] purpose and to its duties and obligations to its donors and members.”

Advertisement

The complaint, which follows a separate legal challenge filed in Pittsfield last week, accuses the museum and its trustees of breach of contract and fiduciary duty. It asks the court to issue a temporary restraining order to block the sale, which is set to take place through a series of auctions beginning Nov. 13 at Sotheby’s.

Courts in Boston and Pittsfield have agreed separately to hold hearings on the two cases Nov. 1.

“The Berkshire Museum’s planned sale of the most important works of visual art in its collection was announced without any meaningful opportunity for its members or the community to participate in the decision or voice their concerns, an opportunity that the museum held out as an inducement to join as members,” attorney Nicholas M. O’Donnell said in a statement. “Repeated experience shows that this disastrous sale will have none of the benefits claimed by the museum’s management and will lead to the ruin of the institution.”

A spokeswoman for the museum said its legal team was still reviewing the most recent complaint and did not offer an immediate response.

Separately, attorneys for the museum filed a response Thursday to the legal action brought last week by a group that includes sons of the artist Norman Rockwell. That complaint charges that the proposed sale violates the museum’s establishing statute, breaks promises made to donors, and disregards the fiduciary obligations of its trustees.

Advertisement

“The documents filed today and the legal arguments within them demonstrate that the board of trustees acted responsibly and any claims to stop the museum’s plans are without merit,” William Lee, an attorney representing the museum, said in a statement.

The museum further argues that “[n]one of the 40 deaccessioned works contains any restriction on the museum’s ownership or disposition.”

The Pittsfield museum has been beset by controversy since it announced its intention last July to sell 40 of its most important works — including two Rockwell paintings — to strengthen its endowment and fund renovations as part of a New Vision plan that would shift the museum’s focus to science and history.

In addition to the court challenges, the plan has been denounced by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the American Alliance of Museums, and the Association of Art Museum Directors. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts attorney general is conducting a separate review of the matter.

“Museum collections cannot be considered as a slush fund that trustees and administrators can tap any time a museum needs money,” Dan Monroe, CEO and director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, said in an affidavit. “The Berkshire Museum’s art treasures do not belong to the museum’s board of trustees. The trustees are stewards. They belong to the American public.”

Adding to its difficulties, the museum announced earlier this week that executive director Van Shields is taking an extended medical leave “to undergo major surgery.” The museum did not specify his ailment, saying only that Shields would likely be out through the end of the year. The museum has appointed chief engagement officer Nina Garlington and chief experience officer Craig Langlois to serve as acting co-executive directors in his absence. The board of trustees will continue to oversee fiduciary matters.

The museum has described the sale, which Sotheby’s estimates could bring more than $68 million, as a matter of financial necessity. Thursday’s complaint challenges that notion, arguing that independent analysts “examined the supposed fiscal emergency and found it illusory.”

“Put simply, the liquidation sale is a solution in search of a problem,” the plaintiffs argue. “Once done, it can never be undone.”

In addition to the Rockwell paintings — which include “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” regarded by some as the artist’s greatest work — the museum plans to sell paintings by Hudson River School artists Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church, as well as works by other well-known artists such as Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, and Benjamin West.

Museum board president Elizabeth McGraw said the sale would safeguard the museum’s future.

“[We] undertook our fiduciary duty with diligence, transparency and great seriousness of purpose to ensure that the Berkshire Museum would thrive despite the challenging times that threaten the museum’s financial future,” McGraw said in a prepared statement. “Every aspect of our plan will result in the Berkshire Museum’s continued growth.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay