Selling Out, or Off (updated)

Berkshire_Museum_2013

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, bills itself as a museum of “Science, History, and the Arts.” Putting art last is not merely a choice: the museum has announced plans to become multidisciplinary – more multidisciplinary than currently, I guess – and, faced with its “new vision” and ongoing deficits ($1.15 million a year), has decided to sell some of its art to raise money. It’s a bad idea at the start, and worse the more you look at it.

At first the museum did not choose to release a list of the works being put up for auction. However, it has since released a list, which includes works by notable American artists such as Frederick Church, Norman Rockwell (2 of his, donated to the museum by the artist), and Alexander Calder (also 2). Also included are works by European artists such as Peter de Hooch, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Francis Picabia. Forty works in total will be sold at Sotheby’s in the coming months.

'Connecticut_River_Valley,_Claremont,_New_Hampshire'_by_Albert_Bierstadt,_1868_or_1865,_Berkshire_Museum

Albert Bierstadt, “Connecticut River Valley, Claremont, New Hampshire” c. 1868. Collection of The Berkshire Museum (for now)

Art critics and journalists, even directors of other museums, have spoken out against the sale. As is sadly all too common, the major associations in the field, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) have issued blandly noncommittal statements, saying they are communicating with the museum about its plans. In an article by Carrie Saldo of The Berkshire Eagle, the museum’s attorney, Mark Gold, said that the sale was approved to “secure its financial future.” In regard to the ethical questions of selling from a museum’s collection to fund expansion and ease debt, Gold said, “The board put its fiduciary duty ahead of these guidelines, which is frankly what [it] should do.”

I have written before about the duties of Trustees to the museums they serve. In this case I can do no better than to quote from veteran art journalist Lee Rosenbaum, who wrote what so many of us are thinking:

“Frankly,” the “fiduciary duty” of the museum’s board and its administration is to raise funds and generate earned income sufficient to insure the preservation, study and display of the collection, not to exploit the art as a cash cow to compensate for their deficient leadership.”

Saldo’s article – and may I pause here to commend The Berkshire Eagle for some of the best regional arts coverage around, superior even to The New York Times – also quotes museum Director Van Shields as saying that the change in focus to science and natural history represents “the will of the community,” an odd phrase (the quotation marks are mine, not Saldo’s) . They did extensive research in assembling this plan. According to the museum’s website:

“In developing the plan for a transformed Museum, the Board of Trustees and staff executed an extensive planning process, beginning with identifying community needs. The process included several day-long Board retreats; three groups of community leaders that met several times; and a series of 22 focus groups, engaging approximately 235 individuals from ages 8 to 55 and over. The participants included local children in both public and private schools; Museum donors, members, and volunteers; young professionals; business leaders; innkeepers; and second homeowners. All told, approximately 400 people have participated in the community consultation process.”

400 is a nice round number, though not exactly representative of the community as a whole – the 2010 census listed Pittsfield as having a population of 44,737. What is wrong is not what the community wants, but the way in which the museum administration and Board of Trustees are going about it. Selling works from the collection is sometimes justifiable as a museum’s focus shifts and works become only a bit of clutter in the storage rooms. That is not the case here. These works are exhibit-worthy, and could indeed be useful in the future. I urge the museum’s Board to reconsider and find alternate plans. Norman Rockwell Museum Director Laurie Norton Moffat has already spoken on the subject (read it here, in another Eagle article by Carrie Saldo) and, with the participation of AAM and AAMD, some more ethical solution might be reached.

UPDATE: Mere hours after I wrote this, AAM and AAMD have issued a joint statement stating that they “are deeply opposed to the Berkshire Museum’s plans to sell works from its collection to provide funds for its endowment, to make capital investments, and to pay for daily operations.” This is a welcome development, and a bit of a surprise given the organization’s weak response to previous ethical issues.

Another quote from the joint statement:
Selling from the collection for purposes such as capital projects or operating funds not only diminishes the core of works available to the public, it erodes the future fundraising ability of museums nationwide. Such a sale sends a message to existing and prospective donors that museums can raise funds by selling parts of their collection, thereby discouraging not only financial supporters, who may feel that their support isn’t needed, but also donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls. That cuts to the heart not only of the Berkshire Museum, but every museum in the United States.

Their entire statement can be read here. Now let’s hope the Berkshire Museum’s leadership listens.

UPDATE #2: The Berkshire Museum has responded and said that their plans will not change. Oh, well.

 

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