A state agency urging Berkshire Museum not to sell art work

September 22, 2017 11:32 AM

PITTSFIELD, MA -- The Berkshire Museum's been around for as long as everyone's been alive in Pittsfield. They've been there as children. Now they're taking their children and grand children. They don't want to see it or any of the artwork go. For many of them, it comes down to a question of who to believe, whether it's the museum's board of trustees or a state agency that said the board is wrong about its own finances.

"I've been told two different things and I can't say who would be right or who would be wrong," said Pittsfield resident Peter Menatti.

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The board recently agreed to sell off some works of art from the museum's permanent collection. It's auctioning off 40 altogether, including two from well known artist Norman Rockwell. Board members said they had no choice. It's either that or shut the doors in less than a decade.

"The Berkshire Museum is facing the greatest financial challenge in its 114 year history," said Berkshire Museum Communication Consultant Carol Bosco Baumann.

The board concluded the museum was in dire straits after countless debates and audits. But the Massachusetts Cultural Council said their numbers are wrong. The state agency that invests in museums, had an independent analysis that painted a different financial picture. The executive director is urging the board not to sell the art.

"The Massachusetts Cultural Council's decision to not support the museum, prior to a scheduled meeting next month to discuss our financials, is deeply disappointing and betrays its stated objective of helping organizations grow and change," Bosco said.

The museum said the auction will go on as planned. The state attorney general is investigating. It's the only agency that could force the museum to reverse course.

Here's the full statement from the museum's board of trustees:

"The Massachusetts Cultural Council's decision to not support the museum, prior to a scheduled meeting next month to discuss our financials, is deeply disappointing and betrays its stated objective of helping organizations grow and change. We share a similar mission with the MCC to inspire and educate citizens of the Commonwealth, yet the MCC has not put forth a concrete or viable alternative, making the MCC's position even more untenable. The Berkshire Museum is facing the greatest financial challenge in its 114 year history, and the museum's new vision, which was carefully developed and refined over a rigorous two year process, will ensure that our cherished institution will be able to enrich our community for at least another century. The museum is committed to serving our community and to moving forward with its new vision as planned."

Mass Cultural Council Statement on the Berkshire Museum:

The Mass Cultural Council is proud to be a longtime supporter of the Berkshire Museum through investments in its operations, facilities, public education and accessibility initiatives. The Museum has been an important partner in our mission to support excellence, access, education, and diversity in the arts, humanities, and sciences across Massachusetts.

To finance future operations, endowment and redesign, the Berkshire Museum has contracted with Sotheby's auction house to sell 40 works of art from its permanent collection. After careful consideration and analysis, the Mass Cultural Council strongly opposes this plan as a violation of the Museum's public trust. We urge the Museum's Board of Trustees to reverse its decision to sell these artworks and explore alternatives to stabilize its finances and generate community support for its new vision. These alternatives exist, and we are prepared to help the Museum and its Board explore them and realize another path forward.

As a state agency the Mass Cultural Council invests in our museums as public institutions by virtue of their designation as 501(c) (3) nonprofit organizations, which exempts them from  property and corporate taxes and allows them to accept contributions and donations that are tax-deductible to donors, including works of art and culture. That tax-exempt status establishes nonprofit museums' eligibility for our funding, grants from the Mass Cultural Facilities Fund, and many other public funders and private foundations.

In return our nonprofit museums have a special responsibility to act as stewards for our Commonwealth's unique cultural heritage for the benefit of our citizens today and for future generations. For these reasons and many others, museum deaccessioning of artworks and cultural assets should be done only in the context of a carefully developed collections plan, sound institutional planning and, where appropriate, public input. Further, there are longstanding, widely accepted museum standards that require that funds generated from deaccessioning must  be used for the care and preservation of artwork, or to purchase new art. Museum collections should never be treated as disposable financial assets.

The Berkshire Museum disregarded these important guidelines in its deaccessioning process. As a result major national accrediting organizations for both art and history museums have condemned its plan, and the Museum was forced to sever its affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution and the benefits that came with it.

The Museum has stated that it must raise $60 million to stabilize its finances, strengthen its endowment, and fulfill its new vision - an interdisciplinary, interactive approach connecting the arts, sciences, and local history. We recognize the extraordinary challenges of operating a nonprofit museum with an extensive, diverse collection in a highly competitive philanthropic environment. And we appreciate the willingness of the Berkshire Museum and its volunteer Board to address these challenges to ensure the institution's long-term viability. The Museum has run annual operating deficits for a decade, an unhealthy and unsustainable practice. Yet two independent analyses, along with our own review of the Museum's audited financial statements, show clearly that the Museum could put itself in a healthy operating position without deaccessioning art. We fear, moreover, that its broader plans rely on uncertain market and cost  projections, and that widespread public opposition to the deaccession will erode the very base of support upon which the Museum must depend to realize its ambitions.

The children and families of Pittsfield deserve the chance to experience the work of Norman Rockwell, Albert Bierstadt, and Sir Joshua Reynolds in their own community. Once these Massachusetts treasures hit the auction block they will be gone forever, most likely landing in  private collections abroad, if recent sales of this magnitude are any guide. The fact is that few museums can afford to purchase art of this significance, and must rely on the generosity of collectors who donate art to museums with confidence that it will be cared for and made available to the public. Thus the Berkshire decision threatens to undermine trust in museums and other cultural institutions at a time when such trust is one of our sector's greatest assets.

While we respect the hard work and consideration of the Board of Trustees of the Berkshire Museum, we urge them to take all necessary measures to curtail the sale of its artwork. We hope to work together to support the goal of putting the Museum on solid financial footing while allowing residents across Pittsfield, Berkshire County, and the Commonwealth, to experience this culturally significant artwork.


Dan Bazile

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