Berkshire Museum's Smithsonian ties severed over art sale plan

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield.

PITTSFIELD — The Berkshire Museum has ended its relationship with the Smithsonian Institution as the result of the museum's decision this summer to sell off some of its art as a way to bolster its endowment and fund an extensive renovation.

The affiliation between the two institutions, established in April 2013, provided Berkshire Museum with Smithsonian resources and reciprocal admissions benefits at participating Smithsonian affiliates.

But because of the decision to sell, or deaccession, the art works to fund its New Vision, the museum would run afoul of an established code of ethics, according to Van Shields, the museum's executive director.

"Out of respect for the good relationship we have with the Smithsonian, I initiated a conversation with Smithsonian Affiliations about voluntarily withdrawing our affiliate status because we knew the decision to deaccession art to fund an endowment would not be in compliance with the American Alliance of Museum's guidelines for the use of proceeds," Shields said in a statement to The Eagle. "We subsequently had thoughtful conversations with our partners at the Smithsonian about the decision the Board of Trustees took to fund the New Vision, ensuring the relevance and longevity of the Berkshire Museum for another hundred years."

The museum in July announced its plans to auction the works as part of its New Vision, a $60 million reinvention plan for the 114-year-old South Street institution. The auction, which will be run by Sotheby's, is expected to yield at least $50 million.

Through the Smithsonian affiliation, the Berkshire Museum took advantage of opportunities like Spark!Lab, a traveling exhibit that challenged visitors in 2014 to tackle problems in new ways and "think outside the box." Smithsonian affiliates can also make use of Smithsonian artifacts, scholars, educational programs and professional development opportunities.

Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, said Tuesday that partnerships with museums — which come at an annual price of $3,000 — are contingent upon their compliance with standards set by the American Alliance of Museums.

The alliance, and the Association of Art Museum Directors, issued a joint statement in July that decried Berkshire Museum leaders' decision to auction off part of its collection. The two agencies, whose standards stipulate funds gained from the sale of collections should stay within the collections department of the museum, argued the planned auction would undermine both the public trust and fundraising efforts of museums around the country.

"Such a sale sends a message to existing and prospective donors that museums can raise funds by selling parts of their collection, thereby discouraging not only financial supporters, who may feel that their support isn't needed, but also donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum's budget shortfalls," the statement reads.

Not including Berkshire Museum, which withdrew its affiliation as of Thursday, the Smithsonian Institution retains 215 affiliates nationwide.

St. Thomas said the decision to sell artwork launched a back and forth between museum leaders and the Smithsonian's affiliate program director that ultimately ended the relationship.

"They did have a conversation and this was a mutual decision," she said.

Shields said leaders at the Smithsonian refunded a prorated portion of the museum's annual fee.

"We are grateful for their collegiality and generosity during the museum's exciting time of growth and transition," he said.

Reach staff writer Amanda Drane at 413-496-6221