Ruth Bass: No way Norman Rockwell envisioned his gifts being auctioned

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RICHMOND — Perhaps unintentionally, the Berkshire Museum's role as educator provided a valuable lesson to the charitably inclined this week: If you want your painting, relic, Greek marble or Egyptian mummy to permanently reside in your chosen nonprofit, put it in writing and make sure everyone knows.

That action means your gift will be encumbered. And apparently one of the reasons the museum can send 40 pieces of art to auction is that none of them is encumbered. Donors who want their treasures to be enjoyed by the public forever have to say so — and perhaps make sure the document exists in more than one place.

Anyone who had even a minor acquaintance with Norman Rockwell (I had dinner with him at a friend's house a couple of times — that's minor) knows that he donated two paintings to the Berkshire Museum because he had come to love Berkshire County and wanted to share his work permanently with its residents. At about the same time, he was storing some of his work at the museum because he and the director, Stuart Henry, had become friends. Apparently, when the first painting arrived, Stuart sent Norman a thank you for his contributions to the museum's "permanent collection."

Anyone who has decided to send two Rockwells out of the county and into someone's living room on Beacon Hill or Long Island has convinced himself or herself that it's okay. For many of us, it's not. Norman Rockwell and his wife Molly — who looked as if she'd stepped out of one of his paintings — were very invested in the town of Stockbridge where they lived for many years. His studio was around the corner from the Red Lion Inn, he often agreed (perhaps didn't know how to say no) to be on the reviewing stand for Stockbridge Main Street events, and the couple, hardly young, pedaled their bikes all over town. They were distinguished citizens, and they were also ordinary. They fit in.

It's hard to imagine Rockwell writing out something legally imposing to make sure his works would be chained to the museum forever. It seems more likely that he took that for granted. It's also hard to imagine that it ever crossed his mind that they'd be bundled up and shipped out as a sure way to raise a lot of cash for a vision.

Thirty-eight other works — apparently all "unencumbered" — have been shipped, too. Among them are one or two Albert Bierstadt, memorable to me because the Berkshire Museum is the first place where I actually saw his paintings. A quick look at the Internet shows that Bierstadt's works have soared in value in the past 10 years, selling for well over $1 million and in two cases, more than $7 million. Getting rid of those ought to guarantee a boost to the coffers.

Taking Bierstadt off the wall in the Berkshire Museum gallery is not upsetting just because his work is valuable, nor because most major American museums are keeping him on the wall. It's also because even though he frequently painted the American West, he was a member of the Hudson River School, like Frederic Edwin Church.

Church is on the sale list, too, and his intriguing house, Olana, is just a few skips away from Berkshire County. So, he was a neighbor, a world traveler and, like Daniel Chester French, a skilled landscaper. Speaking of neighbors, the sale of anything with the Calder name comes close to home for Richmond residents. Alexander Calder's father, sculptor Stirling Calder, had a house and studio here at one time, and Alexander visited his parents in our town. It was Stirling Calder who was commissioned by the Berkshire Museum to sculpt the fountain in the Ellen Crane Room. In the 1930s, his son Alexander accepted his first public commission to create the pair of mobiles that still grace the museum's theater.

Many people will remember the great excitement when people combing through the stored stuff at the Berkshire Museum found the colorful pull toys that were among Alexander Calder's first creations. The museum made replicas of the toys so today's children could try them out — although 20th- and 21st-century kids have probably found them rather unsophisticated. Now, suddenly, it's all right to auction our hold on the genius of kinetic sculpture.

These artists are linked to us, all of us who live in this county. They're part of our heritage, part of our local pride, like having Serge Koussevitzky in our past and William Stanley and Mumbet. So, we have questions: Who were the 400 people who had input into the museum's ideas for the future? Did the initial reluctance to say which paintings would be sold mean that somebody involved was worried that people might object? Does the plan violate ordinary procedures connected to the sale of treasures that are part of the public trust? And how did all this planning remain under wraps for two years in a small county where the grape vine twines through every lane?

Museum founder Zenas Crane's goal, often quoted, was that this museum would create "a window on the world" for somewhat isolated Berkshire residents. We're no longer isolated, but we still enjoy that window and want outsiders to look in at what is grand about us while we look out.

Ruth Bass is a former Sunday editor of The Eagle. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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