Berkshire Museum to sell works by Calder, Church and Durrie

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PITTSFIELD — Alexander Calder, Frederic Edwin Church and George Henry Durrie are among the well-known artists whose works will be sold by the Berkshire Museum.

The museum on Monday disclosed the list of 40 works to be auctioned by Sotheby's later this year. The decision to identify the works was a reversal of its initial decision to keep the information private.

In addition to two Norman Rockwell paintings, "Shuffleton's Barber Shop" and "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop," which were previously disclosed, the list includes two sculptures by Calder, paintings by Church of the Hudson River School, and Durrie, whose depictions of winter scenes were popularized by Currier and Ives.

The majority of the pieces are paintings and the genres include impressionist, modern, contemporary, 19th century European and old master works, and a handful of Chinese works. All of the works set to be sold are "unrestricted and unencumbered," according to a statement from the museum.

There are no plans to show the works publicly before the auction, said Berkshire Museum Senior Communications Director Lesley Ann Beck.

Earlier this month the museum announced a $60 million plan for its future, which will largely be funded by the proceeds of a Sotheby's auction planned for sometime in the next six months, according to Van Shields, executive director of the museum.

The plan includes adding $40 million to its endowment, currently about $8.6 million, and a $20 million renovation of its South Street building.

The changes were prompted by financial need and the will of the community, Shields said. Over the past 10 years, the museum's structural deficit, including depreciation, has averaged $1.15 million each year.

The museum intends to shift its focus to science and natural history, a thrust Shields said reflects the will of the community. And the artworks headed to auction do not support that focus.

The museum spent about two years re-examining its finances and mission. About 400 people provided feedback to the museum during that time, he said.

Some members of the community have objected to the sale of the artwork.

Norman Rockwell Museum Director and Chief Executive Officer Laurie Norton Moffatt has asked Berkshire Museum leadership to "pause" its plans and instead open up a broad public discussion about alternatives to an art auction — a move Shields said was unlikely.

Norton Moffatt said while she appreciated the Berkshire Museum's attempt to secure its financial future, doing it by selling artwork is something she cannot abide.

"My primary concern is what it means to the Berkshire community and to the public at large to lose those 40 works of art, which are among the community's greatest treasures, and which we cannot get back," she has said.

There is an ongoing debate within the museum community about how proceeds from the sale of art should be spent. Professional codes of ethics for at least two museum organizations contend proceeds from sales should be limited to the purchase of additional art.

Attorney Mark Gold, who represents the Berkshire Museum, said those ethics guidelines are too limiting and do not consider the circumstances of individual museums.

When the Berkshire Museum board of trustees approved its plans, it did so to secure its financial future, he said.

"They are supposed to use their assets for the benefits of the museum that they steward," Gold said. "The board owes that to its museum."

Gold said Massachusetts law is on the museum's side, even if the ethics guidelines of professional associations are not.

"The board put its fiduciary duty ahead of these guidelines, which is frankly what [it] should do," Gold said.

Sometimes donors who purchase works of art restrict how a work may be sold or how proceeds may be used. But there are no restrictions on any of the artworks set to be auctioned by the museum, Beck said.

This is not the first time the Berkshire Museum has sold works from its permanent collection, which currently includes about 40,000 objects.

In November 2008, three works by Russian painter Boris Dmitrievich Grigoriev were sold at auction.

The $7 million netted for the works was earmarked for future art acquisitions, former Berkshire Museum Director Stuart Chase told The Eagle prior to that auction.

The artworks, given to it in 1948, were never exhibited by the museum. A 2005 collection review by Chase brought them to light. Since the Berkshire Museum had no context in which to show them and had no plans to acquire more Russian art, it decided to sell them.

Former Berkshire Museum Director Laura Bragg, who retired in 1939, sold several pieces of art during her tenure.

"Raftsman playing cards" a painting by 19th century frontier artist George Caleb Bingham, was sold under Bragg's leadership in 1934. By the late 1970s there was a resurgence of interest in Bingham and the artwork, which the Berkshire Museum sold for a few thousand dollars, was valued to be in the six figures, an Aug. 12, 1978 Eagle report stated.

More than 20 paintings were sold under Bragg for a total of $1,650, according to a report published Feb. 11, 1935 in The Eagle.

All of the proceeds from those sales was meant to acquire more artwork, according to those reports.

Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 413-496-6221 or @carriesaldo.


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