hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News August 2017



Museum raises howls with plan to sell off art


Art lovers in the Berkshires and beyond are in an uproar after the Berkshire Museum revealed plans last month to auction off 40 works from its collection and use the proceeds to stabilize its endowment and renovate its building.

The museum’s leaders say the sale is part of a $60 million “reinvention plan” in which the 114-year-old institution in downtown Pittsfield would shift its focus to science and natural history.
But the planned sale – which includes works by such artists as Frederic Edwin Church, Alexander Calder, Albert Bierstadt and Norman Rockwell – has set off a storm of criticism in the Berkshires and from national museum organizations.

The Berkshire Eagle, which broke the story and covered it extensively throughout late July, quoted museum officials as saying the works to be sold no longer fit the institution’s future needs.
Van Shields, the museum’s executive director, told the paper that without changes, the museum would be out of cash within six to eight years. He said the museum has had budget shortfalls for more than 20 years.

The museum says it hopes to use the sale proceeds to add $40 million to its endowment, which now stands at less than $9 million, and to help fund a $20 million renovation.

The works to be sold represent a small portion of the museum’s permanent collection of nearly 2,400 pieces. But critics say the works to be sold are among the most significant, and many were part of the collection that the local paper magnate Zenas Crane contributed to the museum at its founding in 1903.

In addition, several of the works – including two paintings by Rockwell as well as Church’s “Valley of the Santa Ysabel” (1875) -- have strong ties to the Berkshires and the Hudson Valley.
By the beginning of August, all but two of the works at issue had already been removed from the museum and taken to the auction house Sotheby’s New York, which is expected to sell them later this year.

Among museum professionals, selling artwork from a museum collection is generally considered taboo unless the proceeds are used to acquire more artwork.

Two national museum organizations – the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors – issued a statement in late July condemning the Berkshire Museum’s plans, saying the sale would violate their ethical codes.

“One of the most fundamental and longstanding principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset,” the two organizations wrote.

Among other concerns, the groups pointed out that selling artwork to raise cash discourages potential donors to all museums, “who may feel that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls.”
A third organization, the Association of Art Museum Curators, also spoke out against the Pittsfield museum’s plan.

Locally, Laurie Norton Moffitt, the director of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, has called on the Berkshire Museum to rethink its plans and engage the community in a discussion of alternatives that could keep the affected artwork in the Berkshires.

And more than 20 artists, teachers and art professionals from the Berkshires issued a joint letter in late July urging the museum’s leaders to call off the sale and “discuss how we might work together to create a stronger future for the Berkshire Museum.”

But the museum’s leaders appear to be holding firm. They say their plans are the result of an internal discussion that has been under way for two years – and that the decision to sell the artwork was not taken lightly.

The museum must change its focus, they say, if it is to stand out as a destination in a region that already includes such powerhouse institutions as the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, the Rockwell Museum and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.

The Eagle quoted Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw, the president of the Berkshire Museum’s board of trustees, as saying she understands the public’s opposition to the sale.

“You can overlay the stages of grief with all of this,” McGraw told the paper. “They haven’t processed this fully. We need to help them get through their anger. The board has processed it. We are on the other side of it.”

And in a New York Times story about the controversy, Shields, the executive director, cast the change as a matter of survival.

“We can’t care for our collection if we don’t exist,” Shields told the paper. “The fact is: We’re facing an existential threat.”

Joseph Thompson, the director of Mass MoCA, issued a statement in late July defending the Berkshire Museum’s effort to adapt its mission to changing circumstances.
“Facing up to stark economic realities is not easy institutional work, and unless you’ve breathed deeply of an institution tipping on the edge of existence, you cannot imagine the challenges,” Thompson wrote.

In other news from around the region in July:


Nursing home’s rating drops after privatization
Warren County’s former nursing home in Queensbury has declined sharply in a federal quality rating since the county sold it to a private operator in 2015.

The sale of the former Westmount Health Facility was part of a series of deals in recent years to privatize county-run nursing homes across much of upstate New York.

Privatization relieved counties of the cost of operating deficits at the nursing homes, many of which were descended from county poor houses set up in the 19th century. But critics warned that by selling the homes to private operators, the counties would reduce the availability of nursing care their poorest and most vulnerable residents.

The Post-Star of Glens Falls reported that in Warren County, the federal quality ranking for the former Westmount facility declined from four stars at the time of its last inspection before privatization to one star, or “much below average,” in its most recent inspection. The quality ratings, on a scale of one to five stars, are compiled by the federal Medicare program, which considers various metrics including staffing levels and data from state Health Department inspections.

Centers Health Care, the company that bought the Warren County home, declined the newspaper’s request to comment on the rankings. The same company also took over operation of former county nursing homes in Washington and Essex counties in recent years; both received one-star rankings in the latest Medicare data.

And the former Maplewood Manor home in Saratoga County, which was sold in 2015 to Zenith Health Care Group of Long Island, also drew a one-star rating.


Theater seeks historic designation
New York’s Board for Historic Preservation has nominated the Crandell Theatre in Chatham for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Main Street theater, which first opened in 1926, has been owned and operated since 2010 by the nonprofit Chatham Film Club.
-- Compiled by Fred Daley