Disagreements over the museum’s decision reflect differing views of how institutions ought to raise money in a time of tightening budgets. Critics have said that museum collections should be used only for the benefit and enrichment of the public. Those who support the Berkshire Museum would seem to challenge the widely held belief that museum collections are sacrosanct, even in times of fiscal crisis.
Joseph Klem of the American Alliance of Museums said that someone from each of the two museum groups had spoken on the phone with a Berkshire Museum official about the planned sale.
The American Alliance of Museums’ code of ethics says that proceeds from the sale of collections shall not “be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.” The Association of Art Museum Directors’ code includes an even narrower definition of when sales are permissible, stating: “A museum director shall not dispose of accessioned works of art in order to provide funds for purposes other than acquisitions of works of art for the collection.”
The groups’ statement said that the type of sale planned by the Berkshire Museum “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.”
The organizations have not said how they might respond if the auction proceeds, but repercussions can be serious. In 2014, the Delaware Art Museum, which sold a painting to settle an expansion debt and increase its endowment, became something of a pariah after it was sanctioned by the Association of Art Museum Directors, which asked members not to lend artwork to Delaware or assist with its exhibitions.
Van Shields, the executive director of the Berkshire Museum, said that the institution had to find a way to address budget shortfalls that had existed for more than 20 years while maintaining programming and ensuring continued relevance.
“We can’t care for our collection if we don’t exist,” he said. “The fact is, we’re facing an existential threat, and the board chose the interests of this institution over the interests of these national professional organizations.”
In announcing its plans, the museum wrote on Monday that it expected an auction by Sotheby’s of the 40 artworks it had culled from its collection of 2,400 would yield about $50 million. Plans for the institution’s new incarnation would cost about $20 million, the museum said, adding that it also intended to create a new endowment of at least $40 million.
“The process undertaken by the museum to reach this point has been thoughtful and thorough, marked by intense community engagement and involvement,” the museum wrote.
All of the works chosen for auction are “unrestricted and unencumbered,” the museum said. Those works include Impressionist and modern art, contemporary art, 19th-century European paintings, old master paintings, American art and Chinese art. Two of the more prominent works are by Rockwell: a 1940 oil-on-canvas painting titled “Blacksmith’s Boy — Heel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop),” and another oil on canvas called “Shuffleton’s Barbershop 1950” and dated that year.
The Berkshire Museum was founded in 1903 by a paper magnate, Zenas Crane, who wanted to create an institution of broad cultural reach and purchased many of the museum’s first acquisitions, including paintings from the Hudson River School.
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