Association of Art Museum Curators decries Berkshire Museum plan to sell art

The Berkshire Museum's plans to sell 40 artworks to bolster its endowment and fund a renovation has drawn fire from some in the art world - most recently, the Association of Art Museum Curators.

PITTSFIELD — A third professional museum organization has called on the Berkshire Museum to halt its plans to sell 40 works of art to support its endowment and a renovation.

"This decision goes against fundamental best practices of museums, the very standards that have built and shaped the country's great tradition of establishing and preserving art collections for the public trust," reads a statement from the Association of Art Museum Curators.

Professional museum guidelines state money from the sale of artwork, or other museum pieces, should be spent on buying more work or caring for its collection.

Berkshire Museum Executive Director Van Shields said Saturday that its plans stand; a stance he and its board of trustees have maintained since the ideas for its "reinvention" began drawing criticism last week.

In an interview earlier this week, Shields and Berkshire Museum board of trustees President Elizabeth "Buzz" McGraw said the museum would be forced to close within six to eight years without the planned influx of cash.

The statement from the curators association, written on behalf of its more than 1,300 members across the country, said while it empathizes with the museum's financial situation it should not use its artwork as assets.

It follows a joint statement released earlier this week by the Association of Art Museum Directors and American Alliance of Museums, which took a similar stance opposed to the Berkshire Museum's plans to use art auction proceeds to add $40 million to its endowment and support a $20 million renovation.

The Berkshire Museum is an alliance member but does not belong to the curators association or the directors.

Shields and McGraw said museum leadership fully anticipated this response from professional museum organizations.

The Berkshire Museum has not had curators on its staff since the 1990s. Those roles are not needed at a museum of its size, said Shields, who has led the museum since 2011.

Instead of curators, the museum has had "interpreters" who, since 2007, have helped shape its exhibits or experiences.

He said the shift from curators to interpreters it is a trend that has grown popular in some museums in recent years.

The curators association said in its statement that curators do interpret artwork and are also "ambassadors of the art, artists, cultures and organizations."

"They present, interpret, and safeguard works of art through their scholarship and expertise, and by upholding and adhering to professional and ethical standards," the statement read.

Without curators at the Berkshire Museum, some sources have questioned how the museum arrived at its list of 40 artworks.

Beginning in autumn of 2015, Shields said he led a team of at least five museum employees, which reviewed its collection of about 2,300 fine art objects to arrive at the 40 planned for auction.

As it reviewed the collection the group asked itself three questions, he said.

"Is it mission critical? Is it necessary to continue to meet our interpretive goals? And what is the financial value?" Shields said.

That work was done on a parallel track with its public input and master planning process, according to McGraw.

"A lot of things were happening simultaneously," she said.

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