Attorney quits posts with New England group in wake of Berkshire Museum art sale controversy

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PITTSFIELD — The local attorney who coached the Berkshire Museum to sell art has quit posts with a regional group, amid fallout from the controversial move.

Mark S. Gold said he resigned as an officer and director with the New England Museum Association, for which he served as an officer and board member.

Gold indicated Wednesday that he left the group to spare it damage from ongoing criticism of the Pittsfield museum's art sales.

"I have great respect for NEMA and its board, and I did not want my work as counsel to the Berkshire Museum to impact the reputations of NEMA and its board nor even appear to influence their decisions," Gold said in a statement, in response to a question from The Eagle about his status with the group.

After a plan to sell up to $55 million worth of works was approved April 5 by a Supreme Judicial Court justice, the museum listed 13 works for auction with Sotheby's.

Separately, it sold Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop" on April 11 for an undisclosed sum to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

Gold remained listed online Wednesday as treasurer of the New England group, but he made clear his involvement is over as a leader but he remains a member of the group.

He said that even before resigning, he recused himself for months from "all discussions, deliberations and decisions regarding the Berkshire Museum," in light of his advocacy for the sales, announced last July.

Dan Yaeger, executive director of the association, could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday. The association, based in Arlington, represents museums in the six New England states.

Gold declined to comment further on his decision to leave the association. Efforts to reach other association directors Wednesday were not successful.

Ethics issue

Gold's position in favor of sales became a flashpoint in the museum community across the country. Museum field ethics preclude using proceeds from art sales for purposes other than care of a collection.

But the Berkshire Museum won backing from Attorney General Maura Healey in February to use $50 million received from art sales in any way it wishes. The museum plans to channel $40 million in proceeds to its endowment and then use earnings to address what it says is a deficit of about $1 million a year.

The plan sparked fervent debate nationally, raising concerns about widespread art sales if other museums followed suit.

Last fall, that concern prompted the New England association to convene a special workshop in Falmouth to discuss the ethics surrounding the removal of artworks, a process known as deaccession.

Though the association has been measured in its statements about the Berkshire Museum, national museum groups assailed the process that Gold helped shape.

It was Gold who first described the deaccession plan to Healey's office, in a June 2017 letter — a month before museum trustees approved the plan.

He argued that the 40 works the museum had selected to sell through Sotheby's did not carry restrictions. The museum did not need to disclose its plan to sell the works, Gold told Healey's office, and did so as a courtesy.

But for months, two groups of plaintiffs challenged Gold's stance on whether the works could be sold — ultimately without success.

And attorneys in Healey's nonprofits and public charities division spent months investigating the case. They eventually agreed to back the sales under certain conditions, saying the museum's financial condition warranted action.

That development brought another wave of criticism from national museum groups and from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Anita Walker, the council's executive director, said actions by the Berkshire Museum's leaders "in no way represent the professionalism and stewardship practiced by museums across Massachusetts. .... In this we take heart."

The Association of Art Museum Directors said the Pittsfield museum will face censure.

"The sale of works from a museum's collections to fund non-collection-related expenses is a violation of the public trust — and is not a path to financial sustainability," the group said in a statement the day the SJC approved the museum's plan. "Yet this is exactly the misguided approach being pursued by the leadership of the Berkshire Museum."

On its website, the New England Museum Association says its mission is to help museums become "transformative spaces" and serve as "pillars of community."

"We elevate spirits and change lives. We inspire people to aspire. To imagine. To grow. We are museums. Connect with us," it says.

A short biography on the site notes Gold's legal interests, particularly in art.

"He is a frequent contributor to articles and panels on issues of legal issues, governance and deaccessioning," the association says of Gold.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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