Save the Art: Protest of Berkshire Museum art auction on Saturday

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Editor's note: This article was modified on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, to clarify that the museum's most recent fundraising campaign was launched last month. 

PITTSFIELD — A group opposed to the sale of artwork by Berkshire Museum will protest Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon outside of the South Street venue.

"Save the Art" organizers said Thursday they want planned auctions "paused," a fundraising effort launched, and a community discussion to brainstorm alternatives to the museum's plans. Their demonstration is meant to garner additional support for that, they said.

Berkshire Museum's 22-member board of trustees last month approved the sale of 40 artworks from its permanent collection.

Without proceeds from the auction, being handled by Sotheby's, a $1.15 million annual structural deficit will force it to close within eight years, museum leadership has said.

The artwork set to be sold, primarily paintings, includes work by significant artists such as Norman Rockwell, Albert Bierstadt and George Inness. Museum leaders have said the works no longer align with its new direction, which includes a heightened emphasis on science and natural history.

A permit for the protest was obtained from the city by Florence Mason, a 74-year-old Stephentown, N.Y., resident and artist.

"Pittsfield is really going somewhere and [the sale] feels like a stumbling block," she said.

Mason said she is not a member of the Berkshire Museum, but she regards Pittsfield as her cultural home and is enlivened by the artists and new businesses taking root here.

"There has been a huge outcry about what the museum has done and yet the museum is still standing its ground," Mason said. "It feels very odd."

The group has discussed its opposition to Berkshire Museum plans online for weeks, and has also established a website — artberkshires.org.

The planned protest is the group's first public event, but its organizers said it could be one of many if museum leadership continues to hold firm to its $60 million "reinvention," which includes using proceeds from art auctions to bolster its endowment and help fund a renovation.

Museum leadership has said it has received "overwhelming" support for its re-directed emphasis, which was determined from responses from more than 400 community members who participated in a series of independently lead focus groups conducted over two years.

Opposition organizers said that the museum did not include enough people in its process, and that it should re-open it to additional input.

"We hear and understand their concerns and respect their right to free speech," Van Shields, Berkshire Museum executive director said Thursday in an email. "Our plan to establish a $40 million endowment for the Berkshire Museum and greatly improve its service to the people of Pittsfield and the Berkshires was the result of two years of arduous work."

Shields said the decision to sell the artwork "is painful but absolutely necessary to secure the future of the museum."

He pointed out the museum has had more than 3,000 visitors in the past week, adding "We are certain that our visitors today will enthusiastically embrace our plans for tomorrow."

"Pause" requested again

Peter Dudek, a local artist involved in the Berkshire County art scene for years, is among those helping to organize the protest. He said the group wants the museum to halt its plans.

"We want to pause the whole process, they are not going to close tomorrow," said Dudek. "Let's calm down and see other solutions."

Elizabeth "Buzz" McGraw, Berkshire Museum board president, said many critics have voiced opposition, but none have presented "realistic, viable financial offers or plans that would indicate that a pause would lead to any new discovery."

Dudek said those other solutions could include additional fundraising. He said he has received numerous fundraising requests over the past six years, but none from the Berkshire Museum, a venue he said is not a member of.

A $10 million fundraising campaign to support its current plans was announced last month. Prior to that, the museum's last major fundraising campaign was called "A Wider Window," a $9 million campaign launched in 2006. Pledges made during that campaign were still trickling into the museum last year, said Shields.

He added that fundraising dollars are hard to come by as several large businesses have closed and numerous cultural venues here compete for money. In an email, McGraw reiterated that museum leaders spent two years investigating options for correcting its financial course, which is how it arrived at the need for a $40 million boost to its endowment.

"This is just not a realistic or attainable goal with the donor base in this region," she wrote. "The board has had to make the difficult decision to save the museum and we hope the community will support our choices to do so."

Joseph Thompson, director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, is among those who have said he supports the museum's plans to stabilize its finances.

At least six members of the Rockwell family have said they are opposed to the Berkshire Museum selling Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop" and "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop."

The call for the museum to "pause" its plans was first issued by Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, several weeks ago. She said the majority of the artwork on the list is of regional significance and it should remain in the Berkshires. And at least three national museum membership organizations have followed suit.

Many in the museum field contend that proceeds from the sale of art, or other pieces from a collection, should only be spent to care for or buy more items.

Museum leadership has said while it is open to receiving feedback, it will proceed with its plans.

They have said they chose the 114-year-old venue's financial health over the ethics guidelines of national museum organizations.

Numbers unclear

The number of people who plan to attend the protest is unclear.

City Clerk Jody Phillips confirmed the group filed a special event permit Wednesday for its planned protest. The permit stated "at least 10" people intend to take part, but organizers said they expect more people than that.

"We are not the sliver, the 400 who made this decision are the sliver," Dudek said. "And this needs to be very clear."

A Facebook group called "Save the Art at the Berkshire Museum of Natural History and Art" has grown from a few dozen people to more than 860 since the museum announced its plans July 12.

Sotheby's plans to sell the 40 artworks from the Berkshire Museum's collection at auctions set for several dates over six months, beginning in November.

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


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