Service of Both Sides of a Coin: To Sell Art or Not–the Berkshire Museum’s

February 5th, 2018

Categories: Legacy, Museums


When Detroit was having its financial crisis four years ago, I shared the opinion of an economics professor who felt the Detroit Institute of Arts should sell its work by big name artists to the mega-rich and instead, opt to own the pictures of emerging talent. The new owners could lend their Picassos, Rembrandts, Gauguins and Bruegels to museums as needed and the museum would have such a huge endowment that the interest alone would pay to run the place.

Money is part of the reason the Berkshire Museum wants to sell some 40 paintings. The other is a change of focus. The sale has landed it in a legal tangle.


An article in ArtfixDaily, “Massachusetts AG Seeks to Extend Berkshire Museum Injunction,” reported that the “Berkshire Museum, in Pittsfield, Mass., announced in July 2017 that it would sell 40 artworks from its collections to generate about $50 million, to help fund a New Vision plan to refocus the museum on science and history, and build an endowment.”

It continued, “A November auction of the museum’s art at Sotheby’s was stopped pending legal wrangles and opposition from Rockwell’s family and others.

“‘We are hopeful that a brief extension will allow us to fully analyze the information we have received in our investigation in the hope of finding a way forward to secure the future of the Museum, and ensure it is able to thrive in the years to come,’ said Emily Snyder, a spokeswoman for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.”


Back in November, Larry Parness, the Berkshire Eagle, quoted museum directors who warned that without the proceeds of a sale, the 115 year old museum, founded by Zenas Crane, “could close within eight years” because of a yearly deficit of some $1million. “After working with a consultant, museum trustees decided to sell works from their collection and apply the proceeds to a capital project and to expand its endowment to roughly $40 million.

“The case has drawn national attention and is considered precedent-setting because it may be the largest such deaccession to date in the museum world in which proceeds would be applied in large part to operational expenses.”

The opposition, some 2,000 members of Save the Art-Save the Museum, on two Facebook pages according to Parness, raised money to pay for legal help to fight the sale and garnered 1,700 online signatures.

The museum has apparently softened its message about change-in-direction and added the word ART in a reaction to the stay by the AG. According to Adam Frenier on “‘The museum accepts the attorney general’s request for a brief postponement, but remains eager to see these issues resolved to secure the future of the Berkshire Museum for all it provides its visitors, young and old, in art, history, and science,’ a museum spokeswoman said Monday.”

Do you think the museum directors should have kept separate any discussion of change in direction and first focused on the financial aspects of selling the art to help the museum survive or doesn’t that matter? Should the directors seek other ways of generating income before selling their legacy?

Berkshire Museum Photo:

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8 Responses to “Service of Both Sides of a Coin: To Sell Art or Not–the Berkshire Museum’s”

  1. Lucan Said:

    Museum going has been a core habit of mine ever since more than eighty years ago when my parents, who lived in Italy and loved art, first brought me with them when they went to galleries. With a rare exception here or there, I have decided misgivings about so-called “progress” that the Art World has brought us. To discover that the lawyers for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have finally succeeded in redefining “in perpetuity” to legally mean “not more than thirty-five years,” when it comes to naming rights for galleries in museums, cannot help but turn one into the ultimate cynic.

    In my opinion, recent examples of botched Museum management are the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, where the trustees, in the so-called public interest, ran roughshod over the donor’s intent; the Morgan Library in New York, where spending money they didn’t have, they embarked on building a vast, in cubic footage, mass of unneeded public space permanently changing its very character and nature, not to mention the cost of the place, and that gem, the Frick, also in New York, where they carved out a small new gallery from the front garden to create a narrow hall in which some out of character teapots and tchotchkes somebody gave them could be displayed. Fortunately, in 2014, community outrage forced the museum to withdraw plans for a major expansion of the property, but that is only for now: Watch out.

    Before considering what to do about the Berkshire Museum, I think we need an agreed definition of what “Art” is, and a clear, unblemished history of the institution and the purpose for which it came into being.

    I believe art is what the viewer believes it to be. For example: I believe that the last great American painter was Edward Hopper and that at least 95% of what is produced in this country and called art is utter junk. As to the Europeans, I actually watched Pablo Picasso, as an old man, sketch in an Arles bar on paper table covers and let his posse of followers grab at the scraps to make a buck (Franc?). Was that art? Nobody in the art world would take me seriously, that is unless I were very rich.

    Where did the contents of this Museum come from? Why was it established? Would the original donors be upset to see their work sold off? And so forth. Then in accordance with whatever their research has determined, those responsible, presumably the Museum’s trustees, should make their sell/no sell decision. However, that decision should not on the basis of “… for all it (the museum) provides its visitors, young and old, in art, history, and science.”

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Where to start?

    Another “improvement” [sarcasm here] of the Met in NYC was to launch an initiative to cover contemporary art which might have been fine if some thirty blocks south there weren’t MoMA and further downtown the Whitney.

    And I agree with you about that new hallway at the Frick: It’s pretty but irrelevant except to pander to a wealthy donor perhaps with space to show his/her collections. Speaking of space, there is so much of it at the Morgan now which is a puzzle. I happen to like cozy places, which originally the Morgan had plenty of, and I’m pragmatic to a fault. The grand entrance now serves little more than a gathering space for giraffes and many party-goers when the museum holds a fundraiser. The small chairs for dining way to the back are out of proportion to the mile high ceiling and they look like a mistake. I love to visit the original part and the museum store is fun.

    I’ve long been puzzled by what is considered “art” such as urinals and a large white canvas. Your Picasso memory reminded me of an auction to benefit the Animal Rescue Fund in the Hamptons years ago. There was a piece of scratch paper with a pencil squiggle on it that sold for big bucks because it supposedly was done by a then famous contemporary artist. Like Jackie Kennedy’s clothing that was sold after her death, I question its intrinsic value after a while.

    I am the last one to poo-poo sentimental value: My home is filled with worthless and some might say unattractive things that I love because of who gave them to me or who owned them before me. But I posit that the purchaser of the squiggle didn’t know the artist or he would have opened his wastebasket to the bidder and the same with a pair of Jackie’s gloves or an old scarf bought by a passionate fan. Had the high bidder known the family, no doubt they would have given the person a souvenir.

    I don’t agree with you about contemporary American artists. I, too, like Hopper but I also like Rothko, countless cartoonists and illustrators, Wil Barnet, Andrew Wyeth, and that’s for starters, and umpteen others who are nameless to me whose work I’ve admired at shows and in galleries.

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    There’s no clear answer to this dilemma — it all depends whose side one is on. I’m glad this isn’t my problem, since I would spend days arguing with myself regarding merits on both sides. One can hardly blame those responsible for the injunction. Who wants to see favorite paintings sacrificed for visions not shared by all? Perhaps the solution may be found in launching creative fund raisers which may appeal to those outside of the community, leading to the non controversial creation of a second museum?

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I couldn’t agree more. Not only fundraisers, but creative exhibitions that will bring in new members and visitors.

  5. Martha Takayama Said:

    A very dear friend who is a professional curator and a scholarly and impassioned lover of art wrote the following to me when asked to read this post: “No accredited museum sells its art work to pay the bills. I blame an untrained Board and their hiring of incompetent directors.”

    I agree with her thinking and this statement. It seems irresponsible to sell museum holdings to insure that a museum continue to exist. The concept of deaccessioning a museum’s holdings to turn it into a different museum with different collections, a different purpose, focus, function, orientation as well as decor with a big endowment sounds irresponsible and unethical. It seems like a marketing and tourism development venture and appears to be totally removed from the foundations of the museum itself.

    What remains if this plan is carried out will essentially bear no relationship to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. When he was the Director of the Harvard University Art Museum, the eminent art historian and scholar James Cuno, President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, said that museums were charged with keeping the aesthetic and cultural information and heritage for the public good. He objected to the preoccupation with visitor numbers and popularity of exhibitions and activities.

    These Museum Directors should never have embarked on the sale of any of their collection or the “New Vision” without fully discussing the matter openly with all members of their Board. The options for funding should have been examined without using the collection as merchandise. Without the iconic parts of the collection the Berkshire Museum is no longer the Berkshire Museum, but simply another entity.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    There was and may still be an old sailor’s home in NYC. There are old actor’s homes. I wonder if there is a fundraising organization for failing museums with a crack board made up of fundraisers, curators and others with appropriate expertise. Their recommendations wouldn’t be as brutal as those of the Berkshire Museum’s board. I didn’t read about market studies–which doesn’t mean there haven’t been any. Sometimes the non profit needs counsel from those with success marketing profitable companies.

  7. Lucan Said:

    At the risk of being tagged as a Philistine, and I admit I am indeed an art lover, but I think a discerning one, I feel compelled to write in response to Martha’s thoughtful comment.

    I spent several decades serving as an outside trustee and board officer of a distinguished and highly respected independent academic intuition which had managed to stay in business in a troubled part of the world since the mid-19th century. From inception, through thick and thin, it has relied heavily on American, non-sectarian philanthropy for the vast bulk of its funding. Now, with the area’s geopolitical situation rapidly deteriorating, the question facing the Board of Trustee’s is when is enough, enough? When do we stop funding an institution in a country which is essentially evolving into one of our country’s enemies?

    While I blame the boards of the Barnes, the Morgan, and the Frick for the, in my opinion, needless “improvements” they recently completed, I’m afraid I cannot blame the Berkshire board for recognizing what seems to me the reality of their situation. The dumbing down of America has reached a point where a community like Pittsfield no longer cares enough about “art” to be willing to pay for it, whether with tax revenues or charitable donations.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I can’t see the analogy between an enemy country and Pittsfield. I understand the concept of pulling the plug if necessary but as outsiders it’s hard to determine this. When I have visited out of town museums, such a the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass, the parking lot is full. Usually I’ve dropped in on a summer weekday. That’s another museum that has spent a bunch of money on architectural fixes with mixed results in my opinion, but with the proper promotion it is determined to be “worth a detour.” I’ve been to many places both here and abroad that are jewels in the middle of nothing special. If worthwhile, they will come. I don’t have the statistics on visitors to, say, the Morgan Library but I doubt that many are from the neighborhood.

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