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    Amid artwork sale controversy, Berkshire Museum head to go on leave

    The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield plans to sell 40 works from its collection to increase its endowment and fund renovations as part of a shift toward science and history.
    Ben Garver/The Berkshire Eagle/AP/File
    The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield plans to sell 40 works from its collection to increase its endowment and fund renovations as part of a shift toward science and history.

    As the Berkshire Museum prepares for a controversial sale of 40 artworks from its collection, the museum said Tuesday that its executive director, Van Shields will go on medical leave “to undergo major surgery.”

    The museum didn’t specify Shields’s illness, saying only that he will be on leave through “approximately the end of the year.”

    Starting Oct. 31, chief engagement officer Nina Garlington and chief experience officer Craig Langlois will oversee operations as acting co-executive directors. The board of trustees will continue to oversee fiduciary matters.

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    Shields’s departure comes at a critical moment for the museum, which has been widely criticized for its plan to sell 40 works from its collection — including two paintings by Norman Rockwell — to increase its endowment and fund renovations as part of a shift toward science and history.

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    Numerous groups have denounced the plan, and last week a group that includes Rockwell’s sons filed a motion in state court seeking to block the sale, which is scheduled to take place in a series of auctions at Sotheby’s starting Nov. 13. The Massachusetts attorney general is also conducting an independent review of the issue.

    The museum has said the sale, which Sotheby’s estimates could bring more than $68 million, is a matter of financial necessity. Independent analysts have questioned that assessment.

    “We wish Van a swift and complete recovery,” said Elizabeth McGraw, president of the museum’s board of trustees, in a statement. “In his absence, trustees and the Museum’s dedicated and experienced management team, led by Nina and Craig, are well-prepared to keep the museum on course with its current operations and New Vision plan.”

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