Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer backs Berkshire Museum's 'New Vision'

IN this file photos from July 12, 2017, a model of the Berkshire Museum shows how the interior will be reconfigured. Mayor Linda Tyer recently expressed her support of the museum's "New Vision," a plan that includes the controversial sale of 40 works of art.

PITTSFIELD — Opinions about the Berkshire Museum's plan to sell 40 works of art keep coming in, pro and con, a month before hammer time.

Pieces are scheduled to be auctioned Nov. 13 at Sotheby's in New York City. But the legality of the transaction is being reviewed by the public charities division of the state attorney general's office.

In a statement Friday, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer said she supports the 114-year-old museum's "bold transformation" to an institution focusing on science and natural history. To achieve that, and to address a continuing financial deficit, the museum arranged with Sotheby's to sell some of the most valuable works in its collection, starting with American pieces, including two paintings given to the museum by Norman Rockwell.

Tyer noted that the museum's plan has sparked many conversations, locally and nationally, in which people have exchanged "vastly different perspectives."

Though she doesn't address the issue of the deaccessioning of art, the mayor stands firmly with the museum.

"My belief in the Berkshire Museum has always centered on my assertion that the museum has been, and is, vital to Pittsfield," the mayor said, in response to a question from The Eagle.

Tyer said the museum "has engaged and inspired generations of Pittsfielders, as well as many others throughout Berkshire County and beyond. As a place that has impacted so many, I recognize the Berkshire Museum's desire to continue this work through bold transformation to inspire and engage a new generation."

Museum officials plan to channel about $40 million from the sales into an endowment and use $20 million for renovations and building improvements.

Other public comments this past week were less supportive.

Leaders of the Peabody Essex Museum said in a commentary published Friday that they believe the sale would violate a public trust and have an impact beyond Pittsfield.

"Museum collections cannot be considered as a slush fund that trustees and administrators can tap anytime a museum needs money," Dan L. Monroe and Robert N. Shapiro wrote in a post on ARTery, a blog run by public radio station WBUR in Boston.

Monroe is director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum and former president of the American Alliance of Museums. Shapiro, an attorney, is the museum's board president.

They noted that national museum standards prohibit selling art to cover operational expenses.

"The board's present plan of action represents a fundamental and egregious violation of public trust and fiduciary duty and responsibility," they wrote.

The art collection in Pittsfield, Monroe and Shapiro said, is "the single part of the Berkshire Museum that makes it special."

In an opinion column published Saturday in The Eagle, Alan Chartock, president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio, questioned the suitability of the sale on financial and moral grounds.

"Nonprofits are supposed to go to their communities and raise money the old-fashioned way," he wrote. "We know that Norman Rockwell wanted his neighbors in Berkshire County to have his paintings and, to that end, he gave them to the Berkshire Museum."

Elsewhere in the column, he wrote: "Sometimes, bad things happen because people just won't stand in the way of a bad idea. It seems likely that is what is happening right now."

Staff writer Larry Parnass can be reached at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.

Investigations editor

Larry Parnass, investigations editor, 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 and CommonWealth Magazine.