The following are key actions in the museum's legal history.
1871: Trustees of the Berkshire Athenaeum are chartered by the state Legislature under Chapter 129 of the Acts of 1871 "for purpose of establishing and maintaining in Pittsfield ... an institution to aid in promoting education, culture and refinement and diffusing knowledge by means of a library museums and cabinets of arts and natural and historical curiosities." The corporation is empowered by the law to hold property and to receive gifts in accordance with a donor's written wishes, provided that "no part of such [property or gifts] shall ever be removed from the town of Pittsfield."
1895-1897: Under acts of the Legislature (Chapter 301 in 1895 and Chapter 163 in 1897) the Athenaeum is given the power to take adjoining land by eminent domain. Officials of Pittsfield become ex-officio trustees of the corporation.
1902: Zenas Crane, of Dalton, establishes a Museum of Natural History and Art in Pittsfield next to the Athenaeum and gives the new institution his personal collection, according to a 1921 pamphlet on the history of the Berkshire Athenaeum and Museum.
1903: Crane suggests merging the museum with the Athenaeum, given the "similarity of purposes" At the request of trustees, the Legislature changes the name of the corporation to "Trustees of the Berkshire Athenaeum and Museum" and expands the number of trustees.
1903 to 1917: Until his death, Crane works with the corporation to build additions and continues to add to the museum collection.
1932: Trustees petition the Legislature to separate the Athenaeum from the museum. Lawmakers comply, using Chapter 134 of the Acts of 1932 to change the name of the corporation back to trustees of the Berkshire Athenaeum. The act allows the museum building and collections, including Crane's donations, to be transferred to a new museum corporation, overseen by a new "Trustees of the Berkshire Museum." The museum corporation is given the power to accept the transfer of property from the Athenaeum corporation and to generally hold property and receive gifts in conformity with the written wishes of donors. Unlike the founding act in 1871, there is no requirement that property remain in Pittsfield.
2016: The museum files new corporation papers with the secretary of state's office. Using language taken directly from state law, the organization says, among other things, that it holds the right to "sell, convey, lease, exchange, transfer or otherwise dispose of all or any of its property ...."
July 2017: Museum officials announce plan to sell 40 works from its collection and use proceeds to build an endowment to ensure financial stability and to pursue building renovations related to its "New Vision" project to emphasize multimedia and interactive exhibits focusing on science and natural history. Auction proceeds could be as high as $75 million, according to a June 22 letter from attorney Mark S. Gold to the Attorney General's Office.
— Larry Parnass