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


Arts & Culture September 2017


In Pittsfield, heartbreak and resolve

Berkshire Museum pushes toward sale of artwork as resistance grows


The Berkshire Museum has proposed shifting its focus more to science and natural history -- and selling off 40 works of art from its collection to help bolster its endowment and pay for renovations. But art lovers are calling on the museum’s leaders to halt the sale and explore other options. Photo courtesy of the Berkshire Museum


Contributing writer


There is a philosophical imperative on human conflict that holds that in war, there are no true winners – only losers.

This thesis might very well be on its way to becoming reality in the matter of the impending auction of 40 pieces of art from the permanent collection of the Berkshire Museum – and the grassroots local resistance that has sprung up since the museum’s announcement in July of the impending sale.

The July 12 announcement was part of the unveiling of a new plan for the museum’s future, dubbed New Vision, that foresees for an interdisciplinary museum with a heightened emphasis on science and history -- and less on art.

The transformation would be funded largely through the sale of artwork from the museum’s collection -- works the museum’s leaders have deemed no longer essential to the museum’s new programs. The works to be sold at auction include two Norman Rockwell paintings and works by Alexander Calder, Albert Bierstadt and the Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church.
Money raised from the auction would help pay for $20 million in renovations and other work while creating a new endowment of at least $40 million to provide the museum with financial stability for the future. Its leaders say the Berkshire Museum has had budget shortfalls for more than 20 years and that, without a change, it will run out of cash in six to eight years.

But the museum’s plan has drawn condemnation from art lovers around the nation and from organizations of museum professionals, who generally frown on the idea of selling off artwork for any reason other than to acquire other works of art.

The controversy also has given rise to a local resistance group known as Save the Art, and in August there were a series of local protests, with picketing in front of the museum.


Speaking up for art
Save the Art was founded by Leslie Ferrin, director of Ferrin Contemporary, an art gallery in North Adams. On the group’s Facebook page, Ferrin said the museum’s leadership is, despite its decision, “well-intended.”

But Save the Art, which by late August claimed more than 1,200 members, says it wants to rally community support for the art collection, invite the museum to pause its decision, and find a way to retain art as central to the mission of the Berkshire Museum.

“If no one speaks up to support the art collection and educate the community to its importance, the museum and the community leadership will think that no one believes that the collection is important, which will confirm the decisions they have made,” Ferrin said.

Despite the opposition, Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw, the chairwoman of the museum’s board of trustees, said the institution is forging ahead with its plans to have Sotheby’s auction off the work from its New York City headquarters beginning in November.

“Our plans have not changed,” McGraw said. “We remain steadfast in our decision. We stand behind our thorough two-year process, and we remain clear about our number one priority: keep our doors open and continue to serve our community in even more impactful ways.” 

The trustees, McGraw continued, are in constant dialogue with people in the community and are, along with museum staff and leadership, meeting with individuals and groups requesting more information about the museum’s planned transformation.

But she insisted that only substantive plans – ideas that would help to solve the museum’s financial issues – will be entertained as serious.

“The museum leadership has remained open to a concrete, substantive offer from a specific individual, group of individuals, or entity, provided it directly addresses completely and immediately the urgency and magnitude of our present and future needs,” McGraw said.
McGraw said the museum’s leadership did meet with three leaders of Save the Art to hear their concerns.

“No viable alternative to selling the art was presented,” she said.
The Berkshire Eagle reported that on Aug. 25, an unnamed group of “at least three” donors had relayed an offer through the newspaper to contribute up to $1 million to the museum -- if its board would halt the auction and allow a group of outside experts to review the institution’s financial condition and provide a second opinion about need for the art sale. The museum rejected the proposal.

The newspaper also reported that at least two other groups of people had made offers in recent weeks that they contended “would have relieved the financial burden Berkshire Museum faces and allowed some, or all, of the 40 artworks the museum plans to auction to remain in its possession.” But the museum’s leaders spurned these offers, the paper reported.

The Eagle did not name any of these would-be donors, however, so the details of their offers could not be independently verified for this report.

‘Soul of the collection’
One of the characteristics of the ongoing debate is the highly personal nature opponents of the sale have placed on it.

Rosemary Starace, an active member of Save the Art and an artist herself, is one of the many people who contend that the art carries more than just monetary value.

Starace moved to Pittsfield in 1988, just a few streets away from the Berkshire Museum. Back then, she said, the institution enchanted her with “its musty dioramas, its surprising collection of magisterial Hudson River School works, and its playful, modern Calders.”

She also recalled wondering, “How did they get these?” 
“They were also presenting definitive shows of contemporary art, beautifully interpreted and displayed in the quiet classical galleries,” Starace said. “I felt fortunate, as an artist newly removed from big city culture and as a citizen. The Berkshire Museum was a small-scale, but not second-rate, combination of my beloved museum haunts in New York City.”

As with many people in the Berkshires, but especially those in and around Pittsfield, Starace said the museum was one of the places that kept her spirits up in a city that went through so many difficult times in its transition from a manufacturing-based economy to its embrace of arts and culture.

When the impending sale was announced, Starace echoed the sentiments of many Save the Art members: She was heartbroken.

“Poring through the list of 40 pieces, I saw it was the soul of the collection -- not only the best pieces we had, but so many that are integral to the history of our region,” Starace said. “To sell any of them is disrespectful to the people of the Berkshires and to the museum’s own history and mandate as a steward of public treasures.”

These sentiments also are reflective of a smaller, local subset of Save the Art that has met weekly since its formation on Aug. 10, and grown in size from its original 14 members.
Kimberly Rawson of Pittsfield, a member of this group, is a communications consultant and former staff member of both the Norman Rockwell Museum and the Berkshire Museum.
Rawson said that like the umbrella Save the Art organization, this cohort is focusing on all means to delay the sale of the 40 pieces of art. These measures could include legal options, she added.
“We believe the museum’s decision to sell off the crown jewels of its collection reflects a failure of process and vision, is unethical, and may, in fact, be illegal because the works are held in the public trust,” Rawson said. “They are not the museum’s to sell. We would like a public forum, in the form of a town hall meeting, with museum officials and members of the community to discuss alternatives to their current plan.”

Creating a new identity

Despite the public outcry, museum officials remain steadfast in their resolve to follow through on a plan they say was developed over the past two years as the best way to help their institution survive for the future.

Mark Gold, a lawyer who serves as museum counsel, said that none of the objects up for auction are subject to restrictions, and the museum has full legal right to de-accession and sell them.
“Although no notice was legally required, we advised the Office of the Attorney General of the anticipated de-accessioning and sale on June 22, 2017,” Gold said.

He added that the state attorney general’s office “has requested some additional documentation, and we are in the process of complying with that request and cooperating fully.”

In addition to ensuring its financial stability for the future, the museum’s leaders say they also are trying to re-establish the identity and sense of purpose for the museum.

Van Shields, the museum’s executive director, said people know the Berkshire Museum as an educational and community resource with programs based on history, science and the arts. Even those who haven’t been participating in recent years would acknowledge, he explained, that it has always been a “general museum” with a shifting emphasis on its programs and purpose.
“Some people already think we are a children’s museum, because of our large family audience, and others may think of the aquarium or natural history first, while others may think of art,”


Shields said. “This lack of a clear identity has hampered the museum over the years, especially with the explosion of cultural institutions in the Berkshires, including the expansion of nationally significant art museums that literally surround us.”

The museum’s mission, Shields noted, now compels it to abandon generality in favor of specificity -- by becoming the interdisciplinary museum for the region. That path, he explained, “would be a desired interpretive driver no matter which future scenario we embraced.”
The museum’s vision for the future, he stressed, is the result of a lengthy process that included input from focus groups of local residents.

“Before we made choices, we listened to voices to understand our community challenges and how the museum could help address them,” Shields said. “This is the revolutionary part of our evolutionary plan: How can we best use our unique resources to meet community needs? How many museums plan on that basis? I don’t know the answer, but that’s what we have done.”