Gilles Heno-Coe: Region's cultural heritage is threatened by art sale
The Berkshire Museum was one of the first places I encountered art as a kid, having been born and raised in this idyllic sliver of the country. I've gone on to pursue a career dedicated to art and its study, no doubt inspired by my earliest experiences growing up in this culturally rich valley, nestled among the verdant and gently sloped hills where the likes of Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, and W.E.B. Du Bois lived and worked.
This isn't the sale of just one or two minor works for some petty cash, but a wholesale evisceration of the small institution's landmark possessions, those which not only give it national credibility but also are part of the cultural heritage of Western Massachusetts, Berkshire County, and America itself. On the auction block will be important works by Norman Rockwell, John Lafarge, Albert Bierstadt, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Francis Picabia, among many others.
Spread across several sales in the too-hot-to-trot November auctions at Sotheby's in New York, these works are likely never to see the light of day again. Or even more painfully, if only because of the publicity, they could re-emerge at other museums across the country amid celebratory fanfare. This latter scenario, although painful to imagine, is still the best possible outcome.
Sales could be staggered
With the auction catalogues just freshly printed and in the mail to eager prospective buyers, we can only speculate as to the ultimate deal the museum director and trustees reached with the auction house. Commissions to auction houses are usually steep, both for the consignor and for the purchaser, giving the auction house a handsome percentage of the profit for each work sold. There could even be one or more "guarantees" among the works that are for sale, that is, the seller (the museum in this case) is offered a guarantee directly from the auction house which then arranges for an irrevocable bid for an artwork, usually of great estimated value into the tens of millions of dollars. If the work fails to generate interest or bids among other buyers, the auction house will buy the work in-house and sell at a later date, either at auction, or worse, privately with little to no transparency.
Even if we don't see several of the proposed lots up for sale in the November auctions, this is not a guarantee they have been spared. Auction houses will often stagger works from the same consignor across different sales and in different seasons to maximize interest and avoid having works by the same artists in the same sale.
This is all for the pursuit of yet another vague and flashy, yet familiar, attempt by desperate museum directors and trustees to re-brand their institutions and spend millions on questionable renovations that neither seem necessary or appropriate given the nature of their collections, missions, and programming. This is only part of the story.
Earlier this year, the museum's executive director, Van Shields, was reported by NPR as saying that the museum's annual structural deficit has averaged approximately $1.15 million for the last ten years. While this is a significant and unsettling financial situation, the gross and excessive scale of the planned sale stands in stark contrast to the museum's financial needs, the details of which still remain vague and undisclosed.
The museum will be spending tens of millions of dollars on its proposed renovation, one that E.J. Johnson, a historian and critic of architecture and Amos Lawrence Professor of Art, emeritus at Williams College, remarked in a recent Eagle column, will consist of an "enormous, empty, off-putting cube of no architectural interest that will make visitors feel small. What is suggested to go in it is a type of jazzy installation that would have looked new 50 years ago."
Shields is again quoted by NPR as saying, "To survive, it is change, move, or die — we have to change." He continues, "It is not about what we have. It is about who are we for." Whom then, exactly, is the museum for, if not the people of Berkshire County, who have been vocally adamant in their opposition to the proposed sale from the beginning? And, with all due respect, it surely is also what you have. An art museum without an art collection is no art museum at all. As an old saying goes (one erroneously attributed to Cicero, but no less true for this), that "a room without books is like a body without a soul."
The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors wrote an open letter to the Berkshire Museum, urging it to reconsider its plans to sell the works. "One of the most fundamental and long-standing principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset," they wrote. The statement continues, "If these works are indeed sold, it would be an irredeemable loss for the present and for generations to come."
Sadly, there is little hope at this stage of halting the planned sale, at least not without an enormous financial contribution or legal injunction, both of which are unlikely at this point. The new and flashy glass facade planned for the Berkshire Museum will only house the remainders of its once venerable collection. The sale is expected to bring in more than $50 million, although I suspect the one iconic Rockwell painting included in the sale will sell for more than its $20-30 million estimate.
Killing museum to save it
As much as I'd like to chastise the auction house, the blame falls squarely on the shameful heads of the director, curators, and trustees who allowed this to happen. One would think after the turnabout at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, which decided amid national press and criticism to halt its plan to deaccession its own collection, that administrators of museums nationwide would take heed. Monetary issues are a painful reality for almost all arts institutions nationwide, but while many of those find creative ways to raise money and court new donors, our inept Berkshire Museum administrators seem willing to kill the museum to save it.
The renowned 20th century American sculptor, Alexander Calder, completed his first public art commission in the 1930s for the Berkshire Museum: a site-specific set of mobiles in the museum's auditorium. Obviously the museum thinks it's a good idea to sell Calder works in its collection, which would give valuable context and richness to those built into the building itself. God help them if they wrenched the two site-specific mobiles from their home in the auditorium and we see them come up for sale alongside the dozens of other priceless works. Somehow, I wouldn't be surprised.
Arts institutions and programs across the country are facing widespread cutbacks, perhaps more than ever before. While I expect this kind of behavior from philistines and profiteers alike, I don't from museum administrators in whom the public has placed its trust to put — above all other interests — the preservation of cultural heritage and service to its community.
A Williamstown native and Williams College alumnus. Gilles Heno-Coe is a Ph.D student in art history and a graduate research assistant The University of Texas.
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