Opponents of Berkshire Museum art sale donate to legal fund to stop auctions

In this Aug. 12, 2017, file photo, about 40 people — many of them members of the group Save the Art-Save the Museum — protest the selling of artwork by the Berkshire Museum to fund its "New Vision."

PITTSFIELD — With the sale of two Norman Rockwell paintings now a month away, opponents of the auction of these and other Berkshire Museum works are contributing to a legal fund.

The group, Save the Art-Save the Museum, has raised more than $6,000 in an online campaign that debuted Sunday.

Proceeds gathered through the GoFundMe platform will be used to defray costs racked up by people seeking legal avenues to halt the sales, organizers say, and to underwrite public outreach.

"There are legal actions underway. We are raising money to support them," said Leslie Ferrin, a member of the group.

The nonprofit museum announced in July that it would sell 40 works from its collection to help it overcome financial deficits and preserve the 114-year-old institution. The first of the pieces, all of them works by American artists like Rockwell, are scheduled to be sold by Sotheby's in an auction Nov. 13 in New York City.

RELATED | The 40: Berkshire Museum works of art headed to auction

The museum has said it holds a clear right to sell the works. Doing so for reasons other than maintaining a collection is considered unethical by the American Alliance of Museums and other groups.

Ferrin said money gathered through crowdfunding will underwrite legal steps already being taken to oppose the sale.

"As soon as they're public, we will make them public," she said of the legal actions. "We will adhere to the standards of GoFundMe and keep people informed as these (legal) actions progress."

Ferrin said she is not familiar with the approach any of the legal challenges may be taking.

The fundraising campaign comes as people on both sides of the debate wait for a decision by the state Attorney General's Office on the sale. Museum officials met with that office recently.

Ferrin said she is aware that attorneys advising clients in the Berkshires have been working to present evidence questioning the legality of the auctions.

"There will be needs for funding when they go public," she said in an interview.

As of Thursday, 92 donors had given in various amounts, some of them named, others anonymous and still more adopting the names of some of the artists whose works are scheduled to be sold.

The museum says the sales are needed to counter a more than $1 million yearly deficit and put the South Street institution on a safe financial footing at a time of shrinking corporate gifts.

Proceeds from the Sotheby's auctions will be used to expand its endowment to more than $40 million and to pursue building renovations in pursuit of a new direction for the museum, as it shifts from art to an emphasis on science and history.

Darrell Rocha, a spokesman for Sotheby's, said an online catalogue for the sale should be posted in about a week. A print version will be circulated by month's end.

Works in the Nov. 13 auction, including the Rockwell paintings, will be exhibited in New York City from Nov. 3 through the day of the auction.

Rocha said "selected highlights" of the works are traveling this month to other locations, where they can be examined by prospective bidders.

Petition project

Separately, opponents of the sale have been promoting use of a change.org online petition that had been signed by 1,422 people as of Thursday afternoon.

As with the GoFundMe campaign, the petition seeks a pause on the auctions so that alternatives can be discussed.

"We believe that these works are part of the irreplaceable cultural legacy of Pittsfield and Berkshire County. We support the Museum's future viability. We ask the board to PAUSE and reconsider their decision," the petition says.

The results of the petition are directed to Elizabeth McGraw, chairwoman of the museum's board; Van Shields, the museum's executive director; and to the Attorney General's Office.

Elsewhere online, Save the Art groups on Facebook have some 1,900 members.

In its GoFundMe appeal, the group says it has contracted with a local attorney who will deposit donations in a client trust account without charging a fee for that service. Any money used from the account will be limited to legal action and public outreach, the appeal says.

"This attorney's only role," the group tells prospective donors, "is to monitor the donations and execute disbursements."

That lawyer is not the same one, it says, who may be hired to handle a civil action challenging the sale.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.

Managing editor for innovation

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.