Art

Massachusetts Cultural Council blasts Berkshire Museum over decision to sell art

The Berkshire Museum plans to sell 40 works of art, including two by Normal Rockwell, from its collection.
Michael Lavin Flower
The Berkshire Museum plans to sell 40 works of art, including two by Normal Rockwell, from its collection.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council has added its name to the growing list of those opposed to the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell 40 artworks from its collection to help bolster its endowment and fund renovations as part of a “refreshed mission.”

In a statement that called the plan “a violation of the Museum’s public trust,” the MCC is urging the museum’s board to “reverse its decision to sell these artworks and explore alternatives to stabilize its finances.”

MCC communications director Greg Liakos said the organization has also put “a hold” on a $22,000 grant to the Pittsfield museum pending an inquiry by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office. A representative of the attorney general’s office has confirmed that it was reviewing whether the proposed sale conforms to applicable charities law. Liakos said that MCC executive director Anita Walker planned to meet with staff at the attorney general’s office on Thursday. He added that the MCC has awarded the Berkshire Museum roughly $1.16 million in direct grants over the past 10 years.

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“We recognize the extraordinary challenges of operating a nonprofit museum,” the MCC said in its statement. “Yet two independent analyses, along with our own review of the Museum’s audited financial statements, show clearly that the Museum could put itself in a healthy operating position without deaccessioning art.”

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The museum has said the art sales are needed as part of a vision that shifts its focus toward science and history. “The Massachusetts Cultural Council’s decision to not support the Museum — prior to a scheduled meeting next month to discuss our financials — is deeply disappointing,” the museum said in a statement. “The MCC has not put forth a concrete or viable alternative, making the MCC’s position even more untenable. The Berkshire Museum is facing the greatest financial challenge in its 114-year history, and the Museum’s New Vision, which was carefully developed and refined over a rigorous two year process, will ensure that our cherished institution will be able to enrich our community for at least another century.”

The plan to auction the works — including two paintings by Norman Rockwell — has been controversial. In late July, the American Alliance of Museums and Association of Art Museum Directors jointly rebuked the plan.

“The Berkshire decision threatens to undermine trust in museums and other cultural institutions at a time when such trust is one of our sector’s greatest assets,” the MCC statement continued. “Museum collections should never be treated as disposable financial assets.”

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