Locals react to Berkshire Museum art auction list

George Henry Durrie, "Hunter in Winter Wood," 1860, oil on canvas, is among the 40 works the Berkshire Museum is planning to sell at auction in the fall.

PITTSFIELD — The artwork being sent to the auction block by the Berkshire Museum represents the "cream of the crop" of its collection.

So says Richard Rand, a former top curator at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.

But Berkshire Museum leadership has said it determined paintings by Norman Rockwell, William-Adolphe Bougureau and Rembrandt Peale, are among 40 artworks that no longer serve its mission. It released a complete list of the works on Monday.

The museum recently announced a $60 million plan for its future, largely supported by the sale of those works from its permanent collection, including a $40 million boost for its endowment and a $20 million renovation. The museum has said it expects to fetch at least $50 million from the auction, which will be handled by Sotheby's.

"These are the best and some of the most iconic works," Rand said. "They are the best, and consequently the most valuable in the collection."

Rand, who now lives and works in California, was a Berkshire Museum member, served on its collections committee, and in recent years helped to reinstall its paintings gallery. That project, which he undertook in addition to his full-time role as senior curator of paintings and sculptures at the Clark, allowed him to become familiar with the Berkshire Museum's collection of paintings, he said.

Each of the six art experts interviewed for this report was reluctant to single out a particular artwork of primary importance or significance from among the list. Many of the works being sold were part of its founding collection 114 years ago. And the artists represent a who's who of American and European painters from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. It also includes two sculptures by Alexander Calder and several Asian artworks.

Its plan, which museum leadership has said is needed to sustain it financially and aligns with community needs, has begun to attract vocal supporters and opponents in the region and beyond.

An email Monday from Berkshire Museum Executive Director Van Shields to "friends" of the museum emphasized that art would not be disregarded in its re-commitment to science and natural history, which was announced earlier this month.

"In fact, more art will be on view on a regular basis than at any other time in the museum's history," he wrote. "Also, the museum will continue to acquire art through purchases and donations, especially work that represents the diverse range of creators currently living and working in the Berkshires today."

That position is one Rand said he struggled to reconcile.

"If art will remain a key part of the Berkshire Museum's mission, then I don't see how selling many of these works can do anything except undermine the mission," Rand said.

The Berkshire Museum may have the only regional examples of American artwork by at least nine artists on the list of works to be sold, including landscape painters Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church as well as Charles Willson Peale's portraiture, said art curator Kevin Murphy.

"To the best of my knowledge, the only examples in the neighborhood," Murphy said. "Between the Clark, [Williams College Museum of Art], and the Berkshire Museum, North County really has had the ability to tell a comprehensive narrative about the history of American art."

(Murphy's comments were made independent of his position at WCMA, where he is senior curator of American art.)

Pittsfield native Mark Leach said he too was concerned about the stories likely lost to the community after the artworks are sold. He called all of the art on the list "a foundation and a springboard" to understanding the region as well as the wider world.

"It really helped to shape my world as a young kid to be able to reflect on art, science and natural history," he said.

Now a resident of North Carolina, the museum consultant, arts writer and curator said he returns to the area at least annually and often visits the Berkshire Museum.

He said the artworks to be sold offer "solace and inspiration and serve as an opportunity to step back in time as well as be in the present with the artifact."

Lynn Villency Cohen, an art historian, writer and art appraiser, said she has often visited the Berkshire Museum to study and admire many of the paintings it plans to sell.

"These are not minor works of art housed in storage," she said. "Each one of these has been on display for the public through the years."

The part-time Stockbridge resident is also the chairwoman of the collections committee of the Stamford Museum and Nature Center, where she became acquainted with its director, Sharon Blume. Blume, who died in 2005, was a former Berkshire Museum director.

"You take away the charm, quirkiness, and the most valuable pieces that were clearly put there for the public domain, what do you have?" Villency Cohen asked. "You have a building."

There are also many in the community who say they support the museum's plans.

Peter Lafayette, a member of the Berkshire Museum and among those who took part in a focus group for its new vision, said the plan is the "right one."

He said the museum needs to address its structural deficit, which leaders have said is $1.15 million annually. Lafayette is also the former executive director of the Berkshire Bank Foundation, which donates to many nonprofits in the county, including the Berkshire Museum.

"If the museum halls are closed there are no walls to hang the art on anyway," he said. "I challenge people to come up with what the alternative is. If not selling the art, how do you come up with a sustainable plan? This is probably the only way to do it."

Jenn Gomez, a former Berkshire Museum employee who still lives and works in the area, said she was often frustrated by community response to its work.

She recalled hosting movie screenings with as few as five people, and decried the fact that people were reluctant to pay full price for fundraiser tickets or to make an outright donation. She said lack of community support has contributed to the museum's current challenge.

And she said she has never regarded the institution as an "art museum."

"It's always been a community portal to experience and interact with the world we live in," Gomez wrote in an email. "I would much rather see it stay alive and evolve with the times than to see it keep doing the same thing over and over again for the next 50 years."

Shields has said the artworks will be sold sometime in the next six months, but he has declined to say specifically when an auction or auctions will take place.

Sotheby's plans to release its auction schedule in September, Darrell Rocha, Sotheby's U.S. press office director, said via email.

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