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Berkshire Museum draws fire for plan to sell artwork, including two Norman Rockwells

Michael Lavin Flower

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield.

By Globe Staff 

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield is drawing fire after it announced this month that it plans to sell 40 artworks — including two by American master Norman Rockwell — to help fund a $60 million reinvention plan, bolstering its endowment and renovating the building as it shifts its emphasis toward science and history.

The financially struggling museum said it anticipates the combined sale will fetch around $50 million, which would go a long way toward its goal of building a $40 million endowment and spending $20 million on facilities improvements and programming in science and history. The museum has also raised more than $5 million as part of a $10 million fund-raising campaign.

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The planned art sale has sparked controversy, however, as many museum professionals hold that artworks may be deaccessioned in order to purchase other artworks, but shouldn’t be sold to pay for operating costs or bolster an endowment.

The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors issued a joint statement saying they are “deeply opposed to the Berkshire Museum’s plans to sell works from its collection to provide funds for its endowment, to make capital investments, and to pay for daily operations.”

“[A] collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset,” the statement continued. “Actions such as those being proposed by the Berkshire Museum undermine the public’s trust in the mission of nonprofit museums — and museums’ ability to collect, teach, study, and preserve works for their communities now and into the future.”

On Monday, the museum said the works in question were “not essential to the museum’s refreshed mission,” as it released a full list of artworks slated for sale, including pieces by Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Benjamin West, and Albert Bierstadt.

“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,” said Berkshire Museum executive director Van Shields. “The bottom line is that if someone came up and said, ‘Hey, we can make it possible for you to survive into the future . . . and we’re going to do that with a single swipe of our keypad, that’d be great. But it’s not going to happen.”

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Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, pleaded with museum leaders to reconsider.

“[M]ost museums that have resorted to de-accessioning have not, in fact, rebooted their finances,” Norton Moffatt wrote in an op-ed page article in the Berkshire Eagle. “To think that selling the art will save the future is simply to push the challenge down the road while diminishing the strength of the institution.”

Shields said the museum has struggled for years with its finances. Today, its endowment is $8.6 million, and it has an ongoing structural deficit of about $1.15 million, he said.

Shields added that after consulting with the community, canvassing the philanthropic sector, and bringing in Boston-based consultants TDC, the museum determined that there “wasn’t enough money in the system” to launch the sort of traditional campaign it would take to put the museum on sound financial footing.

“It’s not even close,” said Shields, who observed that there is much more competition in the Berkshires now, when it comes to cultivating arts philanthropy and audiences.

He noted that both the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute have undergone huge growth in recent years.

“We’re the community museum that cannot pretend to be anything like the Clark, or Mass MoCA, or the Norman Rockwell Museum, for that matter,” he said. “Rather than be one of four institutions that are trying to make an art play, why not be the one institution that’s doing something different — the only institution that’s focused on science and history, and the arts?”

Among the important works 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.

“It would be disingenuous to not acknowledge that the value of the works that are going to sale are a factor in this,” said Shields. “But at the end of the day, it’s a matter of recognizing the fact that these are simply not essential to carry our mission.”

While bolstering the museum’s endowment was his primary aim, Shields described the reimagined museum as an interdisciplinary institution, heavy on technology, that does away with static galleries, opting instead for interactive teaching laboratories that combine science, history, and art.

The Berkshire Museum is not the first to be criticized for selling artworks to raise money. Brandeis University reversed course in 2011 after facing intense public scorn over its plan to shore up its finances by selling the Rose Art Museum’s collection.

Shields said the Berkshire Museum can withstand the criticism.

“At the end of the day [we] chose the interest of this community over those national organizations,” said Shields. “There’s no way that someone’s going to convince me that if you bring your endowment up to $40 million that it’s not going to make things better.”


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