AN AGREEMENT reached between the Berkshire Museum and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey means Pittsfield will have a museum for the future. That’s good news, although it does come at a price.
After initially fighting it, Healey signed onto a plan to allow the museum to sell up to 40 items — subject to certain guidelines — and use the proceeds to essentially reinvent itself. A justice of the State Supreme Judicial Court must still sign off on the agreement — and should, even as critics continue to savage the plan.
In the museum world, it’s considered sacrilege to sell art and use the money to save a museum, instead of using it to acquire more artwork. In the real world, that’s called survival.
The tension between tradition and economic revival began last year, when the museum announced plans to auction off, or “deaccession,” 40 of its most valuable works, including two paintings by Norman Rockwell: “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop,” donated many years ago by the artist himself. Museum trustees said a massive sell-off was the only way to deal with a $1.1 million structural deficit.
But the museum’s vision ran into stiff resistance from the art world, as well as from Rockwell’s children. The auction, originally planned for Nov. 13, was held up at Healey’s request. While there are no written donor restrictions on the auction items, the attorney general argued some restrictions did apply. She also questioned the dire financial predictions of museum trustees.
Healey hasn’t changed her mind about the restrictions, but now believes a rescue mission takes precedence. In a letter to Berkshire Museum lawyers, lawyers from the attorney general’s office wrote: “After reviewing the financial status of the museum and coming to understand the museum’s decision-making process,” the office “believes that in these circumstances, the museum has reasonably concluded that it does not have any alternative sources for the significant infusion of funds it needs in order to continue to fulfill its mission and the museum cannot practicably survive without lifting or amending restrictions on at least some of the works of art to permit the sale.”
“Shuffleton’s Barbershop” already has an undisclosed buyer, “a nonprofit American museum” not named in the agreement. As part of the agreement, it will first go on display in the Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge, for 18 to 24 months. The agreement also calls for that work ultimately to be hung “in a place of prominence within the purchasing museum.” The Berkshire Museum and the AG have also agreed to allow the sale of other artwork “necessary to reach $55 million” — the amount an independent consultant deemed necessary to satisfy the museum’s new business strategy and renovation.
To some, this sell-off is a crime. But Pittsfield needs a museum more than it needs approval from the museum police. This agreement ensures it will have one.