National museum associations bristle at Berkshire Museum art sell-off plan

The Berkshire Museum is planning to sell 40 items from its collection to build an endowment and major renovation as part of a new vision.

PITTSFIELD — The Berkshire Museum's decision to sell 40 works of art to bolster its endowment and fund a renovation could have negative implications for museums across the country, two national museum membership organizations said on Tuesday.

"Actions such as those being proposed by the Berkshire Museum undermine the public's trust in the mission of nonprofit museums — and museums' ability to collect, teach, study and preserve works for their communities now and into the future," according to a joint statement issued by the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors.

The groups' stance came as no surprise to museum leadership.

"We expected the response that we got," Berkshire Museum Executive Director Van Shields told The Eagle.

Museum leadership met by phone on Tuesday with the alliance and the directors. Both organizations had questions about how the museum intends to spend money raised from the planned sale of 40 artworks from its permanent collection, Shields said.

The museum plans a $60 million new vision, which includes money for its endowment, operations and a renovation for its South Street venue, largely funded by $50 million it expects to net from that sale.

The museum's decision has been met by both support and criticism in the community. The museum has said it spent two years developing its plans, which were the result of input from 400 community members. And which it has said are needed to sustain it financially.

Public opposition to the museum's plans is growing. Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, was the first to call on the museum to reconsider its plans. Since then others have joined her.

A letter from artists and community members opposed to the museum's stance also asks the museum to take another approach. Those signed on to the letter more than doubled to 55 people overnight, according to Leslie Ferrin, a gallery owner who helped to pen the letter and distribute it via a Facebook.

At least six art curators and museum professionals interviewed by The Eagle said they were shocked by the significance of artworks headed for the auction block. That list includes works by American painters Norman Rockwell, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Dewing among many others.

In the statement released Tuesday, the alliance and the directors also urged the Berkshire Museum to reconsider its decision, and both organizations offered their assistance in developing alternative plans.

"The Berkshire Museum contends that in order to be a good steward of their institution they must be a poor steward of their collection. We believe those two responsibilities are not mutually exclusive," the statement said.

According to the alliance's code of ethics, the proceeds of work sold from a museum's collection should be used for acquisition or direct care of its collection.

The museum released a statement of its own.

In it, Shields held to its position adding he has been "gratified" by the community support for its new vision, the result of a two-year planning process.

"We believe it is the right strategy for the future of the Berkshire Museum and for the future of Pittsfield," he wrote.

The American Alliance of Museums is a membership organization that represents a range of museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors represents 243 directors of art museums in North America.

The Berkshire Museum is a member of the alliance but not of the Association of Art Museum Directors.

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