Opinion

Opinion | Jon Garelick

There’s more at stake in the Berkshire Museum case than a single museum

Protesters gather outside the Berkshire Museum earlier this year.
Gillian Jones/The Berkshire Eagle/AP/File
Protesters gather outside the Berkshire Museum earlier this year.

THE BERKSHIRE MUSEUM is going broke and wants to sell off its major works of art, purportedly to strengthen its endowment and to become a more sustainable institution. The move has been challenged in various civil complaints, including one from Attorney General Maura Healey. The attorney general has asked for, and received on appeal, an injunction to block a planned auction of the art works at Sotheby’s. There’s a lot at stake here, for the Berkshire Museum, the region it serves, and museums in general.

The museum wants to sell — or “deaccession,” in art-world parlance — its 40 most valuable pieces. Among them are pieces by iconic American sculptor Alexander Calder and two paintings by Norman Rockwell, one of which, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” is considered his finest, and is expected to sell for between $20 million and $30 million. The plaintiffs have argued that the museum’s plans violate not only the intentions of the donors of some of these works (especially Rockwell, a longtime Stockbridge resident and friend of the museum), but also the very purpose of the museum itself.

Public museums are not private businesses, owned by their trustees. They are public trusts, nonprofits supported in large part by donations and tax-deferred public dollars. They fall under the laws governing public charities, which is why Healey’s office has gotten involved.

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Deaccessioning is a matter of ongoing debate. But it’s generally agreed that works can be sold only in support of the collection — to buy or trade for other works, or for conservation purposes — and not merely to strengthen the bottom line. The Massachusetts Cultural Council, for one, has called the proposed Berkshire sale a violation of public trust (the council has granted the museum more than a million dollars in the last decade).

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The museum has argued that it needs to raise $60 million ($20 million for upgrades to its facilities, and another $40 million for its endowment) to remain sustainable, especially in the now-thriving Western Mass. art environment, which includes MassMoCA and the expanded Clark Institute. In addition, the Berkshire Museum has redefined its mission, shifting its emphasis from natural history and art to science and history, as part of a “New Vision” initiative.

The museum’s argument is reminiscent of Brandeis University’s attempt in 2009 to close its distinguished Rose Art Museum and sell its collection of modern and contemporary art. The school had been hit hard by the Great Recession in general and the Bernie Madoff scandal in particular. The school argued that it was going broke and had no choice but to sell. The Berkshire Museum, too, running a $1.1 million structural annual deficit against a $2.3 million budget, as well as struggling in a depressed economic region (in a bad time for regional museums in general), says the rebranding and art sale are a “last ditch” effort, after all other means had been exhausted, including attempts to merge with another museum.

The Rose, after a similar uproar, backed off. The Berkshire’s fate has yet to be decided — the state Appeals Court injunction is in effect until Dec. 11, prior to which Healey can ask for an extension.

Should museums be allowed to radically change course from their founding mission? As Healey’s office put it in a brief: “The Museum is disposing of its art-related mission and legacy.” There’s some question about whether the museum sufficiently apprised the public it serves that its New Vision would include scrapping the key holdings of its original vision, or whether the museum really needs that much money.

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But of greater concern to museum professionals is the use of a permanent collection as a bank account. Dan Monroe, director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum, who has been an outspoken critic of the Berkshire move, allows that his own 218-year-old institution “changed its mission many times.” But, said Monroe in an e-mail, “If museums could raid their permanent collections to pay for their programs and general operations, donors and patrons would have little reason to support museums, since objects in permanent collections are often extremely valuable.”

Whatever the court decides, it should consider the importance of the precedent. Museums belong to the public or they don’t. “Trust” isn’t simply a business term.

Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.