What is a painting worth? Rockwell director cool to Berkshire Museum's planned art sale

Laurie Norton Moffatt is the director of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Editor's note: This article was updated on July 21, 2017, to clarify that "Kindred Spirits" was owned by the New York Public Library prior to its auction in 2005. 

STOCKBRIDGE — The 40 works of art the Berkshire Museum plans to sell have immense value. But the director of the Norman Rockwell Museum said she learned long ago that worth has nothing to do with dollars and cents.

"It is easy to think of artworks as financial assets, and to assign them a monetary value," Laurie Norton Moffatt wrote in an op-ed published in today's Eagle. "It is difficult to put into words their intrinsic and emotional value, their ability to expand a horizon, invite a journey into the interior of oneself."

Her comments come about a week after Berkshire Museum announced a $60 million plan for its future. The plan largely hinges on the sale of 40 works of art from its permanent collection — including two Norman Rockwell paintings.

Norton Moffatt has asked Berkshire Museum to "pause" its plans and instead open up a broad public discussion about other options available to the Berkshire Museum.

Contacted Thursday, Berkshire Museum Executive Director Van Shields said it is unlikely to abandon its plans.

Norman Rockwell Museum director since 1986, Norton Moffatt has dedicated her career to the stewardship of the iconic American artist's work and legacy, she is an author on the topic and an invited lecturer on his work. She has also been heavily involved in efforts of the broader cultural community.

Norton Moffatt, who grew up in Pittsfield, said much of the value she derives from art was cultivated as a child while she roamed the halls of the Berkshire Museum. There, she said she learned about Arctic exploration and native life, as well as sculptures and paintings.

"Without this, the picture to which I was privy as a child would have been incomplete," she wrote.

Selling that artwork, she said, could deprive others of that opportunity. And while she said she appreciated the Berkshire Museum's attempt to secure its financial future, doing it by selling artwork is something she said she cannot abide.

"My primary concern is what it means to the Berkshire community and to the public at large to lose those 40 works of art, which are among the community's greatest treasures, and which we cannot get back," she wrote.

Shields has said its board of trustees had a thoughtful deliberation about its options and sought input from more than 400 community members, including arts leaders, to arrive at its new plan. A plan, he said, it's not likely to stray from.

"We will continue to listen to our community but do not anticipate changing our plans," Shields said in a written response Thursday.

Norton Moffatt initially declined interview requests from The Eagle following the Berkshire Museum's announcement last week. During an interview Thursday, she explained she needed time to consider the decision Berkshire Museum leadership had arrived at.

It is a decision she opposed.

"This essay is written with sincere kindness toward the leaders [of the Berkshire Museum] and with respect for their efforts that led to this seemingly inevitable decision," she wrote. "However the process must be paused to invite fuller discussion about what our community stands to lose."

The Berkshire Museum board of trustees voted last week in favor of the pending auction, which it said is designed to create long-term financial stability and will allow the museum to better serve the community. The artworks it selected to sell no longer align with their mission, which will place a heightened emphasis on science and natural history, Shields said.

Norton Moffatt rejected the notion that the museum step away from showing art to focus on those areas.

"Artworks and natural artifacts are not mutually exclusive, but mutually enriching," she said.

Currently, there is a trend toward science and technology among some museums, but Norton Moffatt pointed out is it is unclear what will be relevant in years to come.

"We shouldn't be hasty and lose irreplaceable treasures," she said.

While Norton Moffatt said she appreciated the financial struggle Berkshire Museum leadership said it is grappling with, she said it is not alone — it is a constant challenge faced by the majority of museums.

"To think that selling the art will save the future is simply to push the challenge down the road while diminishing the strength of the institution," she wrote.

Museums have auctioned works in the past, to mixed results.

In 2005, when the New York Public Libray sold the Hudson River School painting "Kindred Spirits" by Asher B. Durand, there was concern it would fall out of public view in New York. It did leave New York but remained in a publicly available collection.

Walmart heiress and art patron Alice L. Walton purchased the work for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, which she founded.

But an attempt to decrease debt by selling art at the Delaware Art Museum in 2014 fell short of expectation. A pre-Raphaelite painting by William Holman Hunt, estimated to sell for as much at $13.4 million, was auctioned for $4.25 million.

Shields said Berkshire Museum expects to yield at least $50 million by selling the 40 artworks at auction through Sotheby's.

A date for the auction has not been disclosed but he said it will likely occur within six months.

Rockwell's pieces alone have been known to sell for significant amounts. For example, in December 2013, "Saying Grace," a Rockwell painting auctioned by Sotheby's, was purchased for a record $46,085,000 — more than double the $20 million high estimate placed on it.

Berkshire Museum has declined The Eagle's requests to release the complete list of the artwork it intends to sell at auction. It has said they include impressionist, modern and contemporary artwork.

According to the Berkshire Museum, Rockwell gifted Berkshire Museum "Shuffleton's Barbershop" and "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop" in 1959 and 1966, respectively.

They were last displayed at the Berkshire Museum in October 2015 as part of the exhibit "Objectify: A Glimpse Into the Permanent Collection."

The museum does not plan to show the works publicly before the auction, said Berkshire Museum Senior Communications Director Lesley Ann Beck.

In addition to her leadership of the Rockwell Museum, Norton Moffatt has been involved with a number of projects tied to the region's arts and cultural sector including co-founding Berkshire Creative, which drew attention to the concept of what is now commonly referred to as the creative economy.

Norton Moffatt said she learned of the museum's decision to sell the two Rockwells and other works a day before its public announcement. Although, over a year ago, she said she was invited by the Berkshire Museum to join a working group studying its future. Serving on four other boards at the time, she said she declined to join.

Had the Berkshire Museum approached the Norman Rockwell Museum she said the two entities might have worked together to identify another solution for the artwork planned to head to the auction block.

"Although I have a personal and professional interest in the Rockwells, I am equally concerned about the other works as well," she said. "This is a tremendous loss that Pittsfield should not settle for. But it also weakens the cultural fabric as a whole."

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