National group bars art exchanges with Berkshire Museum

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National art museum leaders sanctioned the Berkshire Museum on Friday for violating a trade group's policy on art sales.

Trustees of the Association of Art Museum Directors cited both the Pittsfield museum and the La Salle University Art Museum for going against the group's longstanding prohibition against spending proceeds from art sales on operations or expansions, rather than the acquisition of art.

As a consequence, the association asked all of the group's 243 members to shun collaborative work with the two museums, a step that could isolate both from the national museum community.

The association said in a statement its members should "refrain from lending or borrowing works of art to either the Berkshire Museum or the La Salle University Art Museum, and to also refrain from collaborating with either institution on exhibitions."

The move followed a May 21 vote by the group's trustees in Minneapolis and earlier efforts by the association to counsel the museums on accepted ethical practices.

The Berkshire Museum has maintained that it holds the legal right to sell works from its collection. This week, it concluded two weeks of auctions at Sotheby's in New York City.

Those sales, and a private transfer of Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop" to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, generated more than $40 million in proceeds. The trade group had urged the Berkshire Museum not to pursue the plan it announced last July to sell up to 40 works of art and then use proceeds in part to offset recurring deficits.

The Berkshire Museum received approval from both the Attorney General's Office and the Supreme Judicial Court to raise $55 million by selling up to 40 pieces from its collection.

The association said it warned both museums that they could face sanctions.

"Selling art to support any need other than to build a museum's collection fundamentally undermines the critically important relationships between museums, donors and the public," the association said in its statement Friday.

"When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make great works of art available to the public. This hurts the individual institution and affects the museum field as a whole," it said.
Carol Bosco Baumann, a spokeswoman for the museum, said trustees considered the possibility of sanctions. She said they went ahead with art sales to "secure and sustain the museum's future."

"We determined then and strongly believe now that to protect our most important asset — the museum's open doors — it was necessary, and even with regrettable sanctions like these, we could fulfill the mission of the museum and successfully serve the community," she said in a statement, in response to a request for comment.

Earlier move

This isn't the first time the museum's plan cost it relationships with other museums.

In September, Van Shields, the museum's executive director, told The Eagle he had withdrawn its relationship with the Smithsonian Institution, ending a four-year affiliation that allowed it to share resources with the Washington, D.C., museum.

In 2014, that link enabled the local museum to bring in a traveling exhibit called Spark!Lab.

Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, said at the time that to be eligible to partner with her institution, museums must comply with standards set by the American Alliance of Museums.

That group and the Association of Art Museum Directors issued a joint statement last July assailing the Berkshire Museum's plan to sell works in order to raise money for things other than cultivation of its art collection.

The American Alliance of Museums has not cut all ties to people associated with the Berkshire Museum art sales.

Early this month, it convened a panel at its annual meeting in Arizona on the subject of deaccession — the culling of works from a collection.

MarkS.  Gold, the Pittsfield attorney who has advised the Berkshire Museum on its art sales, joined the discussion, according to an online listing for the May 8 event in Phoenix.

The goal of that panel discussion was to help people find ways to "better articulate" arguments for and against deaccession and to "gain deeper insight about recent controversial deaccessioning plans."
The La Salle University Museum sold 22 works at April auctions at Christie's after the school's trustees approved pulling 46 works from the collection. The April auctions generated $2.4 million in proceeds, including fees kept by Christie's, according to a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Lori Fogarty, an Association of Art Museum Directors official, wrote to members Friday asking them to direct their staffs to review loan requests or partnerships with the two museums being sanctioned.

"Take the responsibility to act in accordance with our sanction," Fogarty said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Eagle.

"While AAMD will not be overseeing your actions in this regard, members should expect that the public and the media may note or report on any partnerships associated with the loan of works of art or sharing of exhibitions and programming," she wrote.

She called the sanctions "an extraordinary action on the part of AAMD."

"We are fortunate that situations requiring such extreme action have been few indeed," Fogarty wrote.

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


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