'Giant Redwood Trees' will fall at Berkshire Museum despite interpretive value

Albert Bierstadt's "Giant Redwood Trees of California" is among a group of artworks that the Berkshire Museum hopes to sell to help meet its goal of raising $55 million to secure the institution's future.

PITTSFIELD — How has the Berkshire Museum loved thee, "Giant Redwood Trees of California" by Albert Bierstadt?

It has, indeed, counted the ways.

First, set the wayback machine to 1903, when the acclaimed 1874 painting, a gift from museum founder Zenas Crane, greeted the new institution's first visitors, allowing them to peer into a luminous, Edenic scene thousands of miles west.

Bierstadt had died the year before and gone to his grave in New Bedford. But this example of the immigrant artist's repeated explorations of the American West lived on in Pittsfield.

Back to today. "Giant Redwood Trees of California," a notable example of the Hudson River School, is for sale.

Just how the museum has valued Bierstadt's work has toggled lately between reverence for its interpretive value and interest in what it can fetch in cash.

Correspondence between the museum and the office of Attorney General Maura Healey in April, May and June details changing calculations that museum leaders made in selecting the 22 works already sold or still facing transfer, including Bierstadt's painting, as the institution drives to obtain $55 million in net proceeds from private sales and auctions.

The reports, copies of which were provided by the museum and Healey's office, cite a desire to retain the Bierstadt painting, enabling it to be featured in new interdisciplinary exhibits the museum plans as part of its "New Vision."

Showing love

In an April 10 letter to Healey's office, William F. Lee, the museum's lead lawyer, took pains to note that it would not sell Bierstadt's painting in a first round, though it had been valued for auction at $1.5 million to $2.5 million.

Museum trustees wanted to keep the painting, Lee wrote, because it would be of use in presenting New Vision exhibits. He stressed that the work might still have to be sold to hit the museum's financial target, but wrote at length about its importance.

"This 1874 painting depicts Native Americans in an old growth redwood forest, suggesting an era before the arrival of Europeans," the WilmerHale lawyer wrote.

"In the century that followed, new populations would arrive in the region by the millions, and 95% of such redwood forests would fall to logging, as redwood lumber is prized for its light weight and durability," Lee wrote.

Then he got to the painting's hefty interpretive value: "These developments evoke rich interpretive themes including the collision of civilizations, environmental change and preservation, and how different civilizations have adapted to — or altered — their ecologies. While other works could also further such interpretive goals, this painting is one of the 39 remaining works with comparatively greater interpretive value, and thus the Museum prioritized it for retention."

On that, plenty of art experts would agree.

J. Gray Sweeney, a professor of art at Arizona State University, said he first saw "Giant Redwood Trees of California" when he visited the Berkshire Museum more than 40 years ago while working on his dissertation.

He later devoted a chapter to the painting in his 1991 book "Masterpieces of Western American Art."

As an interior forest scene, Sweeney said, the work is unusual for Bierstadt, who more often painted horizons and mountains.

But the scene set in what is now called Mariposa Grove conveys majesty nonetheless, Sweeney said. "The trees were so huge that you couldn't paint the tops of them," he said.

Bierstadt took liberties, including his representation of Native Americans in the scene, according to Sweeney. "Those people had already been exterminated."

But the artist's audience at the time wanted romance and a sense of American grandeur, Sweeney said.

"It's a promissory painting. It's a fictional painting which serves a big cultural purpose," he said. "The trees symbolize the idea that they were God's cathedrals. You have all that wonderful glowing light."

Mixed messages

However, the first auctions and private sales in May, plus the April sale of Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop," did not bring the expected $55 million.

Consequently, the glowing light in the Bierstadt frame may have started to dim, as far as trustees were concerned.

Deeper in his letter, Lee pointed out again that the museum opted not to put the Bierstadt painting up for sale despite the fact that its sale estimate alone was higher than the combined values of nine of the 13 works chosen for May sales.

But, over time, messages from the museum about the Bierstadt work have been mixed.

In that same April 10 letter, Lee notes that when the institution's Collections Committee voted last July to deaccession 40 works of art, it did so because "the Museum could continue fulfilling its mission without the works."

On top of that, the Bierstadt painting was among the first listed for auction last November at Sotheby's, until that sale was halted by a Massachusetts Appeals Court judge at the request of Healey's office.

Two months after extolling the teaching power of "Giant Redwood Trees of California," Lee and the museum had a different message for Healey's office. It came when he filed a June 15 report on plans for a second round of sales, as allowed under the agreement upheld April 5 by Associate Justice David A. Lowy of the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County.

It fell to Lee to tell Healey's office which artworks would be sold in a second batch, in an effort to push proceeds all the way to $55 million.

A week before, he reported, trustees met and asked museum staff to pick works for a second round of sales. That set Van Shields, who retired Thursday from his position as executive director without previous public notice, and three employees in motion. They checked with Sotheby's to learn which remaining works might be of most interest to public institutions, furthering a desire to keep the artworks accessible to the public, even if it meant dampening returns.

By June 11, this team — Shields; Craig Langlois, chief experience officer; Jason Vivori, collections experience manager; and Logan Recchia, collections associate registrar — had a list.

That same day, Lee wrote, the Collections Committee weighed the competing values — interpretive versus financial proceeds — and backed the plan.

The next day, the trustees went over the same considerations and decided they had to sell the Bierstadt painting, in part because they received less than they expected for "Shuffleton's Barbershop" and from other May auctions, taking in a total of $47 million, not the $55 million goal.

"The Board concluded that it would be impossible to raise $55 million without selling the two deaccessioned works with the highest financial value," Lee wrote in his letter to Healey's office.

In the first sales, he wrote, the board tried to balance the considerations of interpretive and financial values.

Money calls

But with the shortfall in the May sales, it was hammer time again.

Lee explained that, going off median auction estimates, the museum judged that it could not hit $55 million "without selling the two most financially valuable deaccessioned works."

That meant the Bierstadt and Thomas Moran's "The Last Arrow." Moran's 1867 oil-on-canvas painting, another landscape donated by Crane, had received auction estimates of $2 million to $3 million when up for sale last November.

Lee set out to explain why it suited the museum to sell a painting — "Giant Redwoods of California" — that, two months before, had been characterized as able to "evoke rich interpretive themes" and which held "comparatively greater interpretive value."

All 40 deaccessioned works, he reminded the attorney general, were removed as not being essential to fulfilling the museum's mission.

"Nevertheless, it is possible to choose among the works and identify those most likely to support the Museum's interdisciplinary goals."

Then he noted works that are not yet listed for sale, while not quite promising that they wouldn't be part of a third allowable batch of works — the lawyers borrow a word from high finance and call them "tranches" — to be sold.

"In selecting items to include in this second tranche, the Museum has considered the interpretive value of each of the remaining works. While the second tranche includes Albert Bierstadt's 'Giant Redwood Trees of California,' the Museum has elected to continue to retain, if possible, other similar (though less valuable) deaccessioned works."

A painting's fans

This past week, the founding president of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council revealed in a letter to the editor that he had lobbied the museum to keep Bierstadt's painting in Pittsfield, echoing sentiments in Lee's April 10 letter to Healey's office.

"This painting of the redwoods is of huge importance in understanding the need (desire) to protect wilderness," George Wislocki wrote.

He said he had met twice with museum staff members to propose that the painting be part of an exhibit devoted to Berkshire forests, farms and landscape.

"The exhibit could inform visitors how the Berkshire landscape has changed over centuries as well as efforts today to save family farms and forests," Wislocki wrote.

The Albany Institute of History & Art is showing works representing the Hudson River School, a body of work that coincided, it notes on its website, with the rise of photography, industrialism and the science of geology.

"The Hudson River School ultimately helped shape an American identity," a note on the exhibition explains.

Sweeney, the Arizona State University professor, said the Bierstadt work captures a moment in American history and art. He believes the painting ought to stay in the Berkshires — and feels the same way about other works pulled from the collection.

Museum officials said they, too, feel the loss of works, but insist they acted to save an institution on the verge of closing.

Though he lives and works in the lands Bierstadt once wandered, Sweeney said he has followed news of the museum's art sales and believes them to be misguided.

"It's such a shame that painting is leaving the museum," he said. "It's one of the most deplorable developments in the history of American art. It's such a horrible sham."

For the museum, though, it's a new lease on life.

In each of his three reports to date to Healey's office, the museum's lawyer gives thanks for the way months of litigation turned out, enabling the institution, he wrote June 15, "to replenish the Museum's endowment and renovate its aging building so that the Museum will continue to serve the community for many years to come."

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