What’s better for the Berkshires? Keeping two Norman Rockwell paintings in a Pittsfield museum that’s headed toward financial ruin? Or having a reinvented museum in Pittsfield that’s financially stable because it sold those two paintings, along with other valuable items from its collection?
Berkshire Museum trustees say the institution’s survival comes down to change or die. That’s why they want to auction off 40 of the museum’s most valuable works, including two Rockwell paintings. The proceeds would be used to offset a deficit, renovate the building, and allow the museum to proceed with a “New Vision” initiative.
The “deaccessioning” of art at this scale and for this purpose is unprecedented in the museum world. Traditionally, works are sold only to support an existing collection — to buy or trade for other works, not to strengthen the bottom line or apply to a capital fund-raising campaign. Many museums consider such sales a serious violation of professional ethics. But the trustees of the Berkshire Museum insist they have no choice. They have struggled with a $1.1 million structural deficit over the past decade and, without a major cash influx, see a bleak future for an institution that has been part of Pittsfield since 1871. Over the years, Pittsfield suffered when manufacturing jobs disappeared and population shrank, as people looked elsewhere for work. Old corporate donors that once kept the museum afloat have vanished. But the city is working hard to establish itself as part of the lively Berkshire County arts and culture scene.
A financially healthy Berkshire Museum helps that effort. Trustees believe that auctioning off their core collection is the path to resurrection. Absent an angel donor with a big heart and wallet, it’s the right call, even if it’s a gut-wrenching one.
Rockwell donated “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” in 1958 and “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop” in 1966. The artist “immortalized what people come to think of when they think about the Berkshires,” said US Representative Richard Neal, whose district covers Pittsfield. He would like the paintings to remain there, but acknowledges that for “museums in small cities, it’s tough. They could be on the verge of going under if they can’t complete the sale.” Neal said he trusts the museum’s assessment of its financial situation, which leaves it “betwixt and between if they don’t have generous benefactors willing to step forward and keep the lights on.”
The auction, originally planned for Nov. 13, was held up after the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued an injunction at the request of Attorney General Maura Healey, who has jurisdiction over public charitable trusts, which include museums. The case is scheduled to be taken up again by the state Appeals Court on Dec. 11.
There are no written donor restrictions on the auction items. But in legal filings, Healey argues that the sale of 19 of the items acquired before 1932 is restricted by specific language in the original founding charter. With the Rockwell paintings, the attorney general argues the artist intended his donations to be part of the permanent collection, and cites documents and other evidence that back up that intent. Healey also argues the museum would violate its duty of care as a custodian for the public if it auctions off the work. And the sale, if consummated, would impair the museum’s reputation in the art world, with consequences for the community; a blacklisted Berkshire Museum might not be able to borrow works for exhibits from peer institutions, for instance.
The plans to sell the 40 works of art and apply the proceeds to a new vision would unquestionably change the mission of this institution, a scenario the AG also argues against.
But if the museum holds onto all the paintings, and goes under, the public — and Pittsfield — could be left with nothing. The trustees aren’t just the public’s custodians for the artworks, but also for a community institution that deserves to have a future. The museum knows that it risks turning itself into a pariah in the art world with the sale. But that seems to be what it will take to remain viable, and no artist, not even Rockwell, could turn that into a pretty picture.