The Berkshire Museum received court approval Thursday for an agreement that would allow it to sell up to 40 artworks in an effort to shore up its finances and refurbish the building as part of a broader shift in mission toward science and history.
The judgment, handed down by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, allows the Pittsfield museum to sell many of its most important artworks, including Norman Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” which is being sold to an unnamed museum. The decision stipulates that the buyer will loan “Barbershop” to the Norman Rockwell Museum in nearby Stockbridge for up to two years and will explore opportunities to exhibit the painting at other Massachusetts museums.
The decision also clears the way for the museum to begin selling the other 39 works in three sequential installments through Sotheby’s auction house. Under designated conditions, it may continue to sell the works until proceeds from the combined sales reach $55 million.
“This is great news for the people of Berkshire County and everyone who visits the Berkshire Museum for one-of-a-kind experiences in history, art, and science,” Elizabeth McGraw, chair of the museum board of trustees, said in a prepared statement. “We recognize this decision may not please those who have opposed the museum’s plans. Still, we hope people will be able to move forward in a constructive way to help us secure and strengthen the future of this museum, at a time when our community needs it more than ever.”
The museum’s controversial effort to sell a large portion of its collection has drawn fierce criticism from community members and many in the museum world, where it is widely considered unethical to sell portions of a collection to help meet the bottom line. The plan spurred unsuccessful legal challenges, including one by a group that included Rockwell’s heirs.
“While we are disappointed with the Court’s decision, we believe that our clients raised important questions concerning the Museum’s decision to sell the art which are not only important to the citizens of Berkshire County but also to the art world in general,” said attorney Michael Keating, who represented some of the plaintiffs. “Our clients hope that the Museum has a successful future, considering the enormous cost the Museum and the citizens of Berkshire County will incur by the sale of its art collection.”
The plan was also opposed by both the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors. In a statement Thursday, the AAMD said that while the court’s decision to approve the sale may address outstanding legal questions, “ [i]t does not resolve the violations of ethical and professional standards that will occur when the Museum’s plans are implemented.”
“When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make great works of art available to the public; this hurts the individual institution and affects the museum field as a whole,” the AAMD said in the statement. “[I]f the Berkshire Museum proceeds with its current plan . . . AAMD will have no choice but to consider taking further action in accordance with its policy, which may include censure and/or sanctions.”
Anita Walker, executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, also expressed displeasure with the ruling. “We are disappointed in the outcome of this long and difficult ordeal. It represents a significant loss of cultural heritage to the people of Berkshire County and to the entire Commonwealth,” Walker said. “While the actions of this museum are contrary to all nationally accepted museum standards and practices, they in no way represent the professionalism and stewardship practiced by museums across Massachusetts. In this we take heart.”
Although Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office initially opposed the plan, state attorneys brokered this modified version of the sale after a monthslong review of the case.
“We are pleased that today’s decision will help to ensure that the Berkshire Museum can continue to fulfill its broad mission for Pittsfield, Berkshire County, and the general public, preserves Shuffleton’s Barbershop for public view, and reaffirms the Attorney General’s role in protecting charitable missions and restrictions,” Emily Snyder, a spokeswoman for Healey’s office, said in a statement. “It is critical that charities are transparent and accountable to the public — and ultimately, to the courts.”
Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.