SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Van Shields and Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw said the Berkshire Museum’s deaccessioning decision was done at a time when the institution was on its last leg, with no recourse other than to sell the most valuable works in its collection.
The decision, they said, righted the museum’s fiscal position, allowing for the creation of an endowment and for needed capital repairs.
But the deaccessioning, which sold works by Norman Rockwell, Alexander Calder and Albert Bierstadt, among others, and raised $53.25 million, also brought about legal challenges from a local group of critics, Save The Art, and other community members.
Shields and McGraw, who are no longer affiliated with the museum, were featured speakers of an online panel about regional museums making difficult decisions on Thursday, part of “Deaccessioning After 2020,” a two-day symposium sponsored by Syracuse University’s College of Law and Graduate Program in Museum Studies. The panel’s other members included the Everson Museum of Art’s Executive Director Elizabeth Dunbar and board president Jessica Arb Danial. Some 1,100 individuals — including graduate school students, museum professionals and educators from around the country — were signed up for the conference, Craig M. Boise, dean of Syracuse University’s College of Law, said Thursday.
In the three years since the controversial sale, the Berkshire Museum’s decision, moderator Laura Roberts pointed out, has provoked an unprecedented amount of criticism and had become the touchstone of the broader “deaccessioning discussion.” In addition to opposition that hasn’t died down, the Berkshire Museum was censured by professional organizations Association of Art Museum Directors and American Alliance of Museums, prohibiting member museums from loaning objects or working in collaboration the Pittsfield institution.
“We are a small regional museum in a county of aging individuals where there are over 1,000 nonprofits, that are all vying for the same funding. Was this the easy way out? By no means, it was only a last resort,” McGraw said. “But I have to say the museum is at a place where amazing things are happening and the potential is great. It’s a tough decision, you’re going to get raked over the coals.
“The reality is that there is a very vocal group of museum-world people that want to cast out an institution and treat it like a pariah when the institution is at its lowest point in its history. Productive conversations just cannot happen when there is this pervasive meanness that overhangs every existential issue like this and it doesn’t help the broader museum field to create meaningful solutions and create partnerships and make needed changes in policies.”
Roberts took time to acknowledge that the critics of neither the Berkshire Museum nor the Everson Museum of Art were included as part of the conversation. The Everson Museum of Arts was criticized for the recent sale of Jackson Pollock’s “Red Composition, 1946,” for $12 million through Christie’s auction house. Dunbar said proceeds went to diversify its collection to focus on works by artists of Black and indigenous artists, as well as other artists of color, women artists, and other under-represented, emerging and mid-career artists. Funds will also be used for the care of the museum’s collection, including storage and conservation needs.
Members of Save The Art had asked to be included in Thursday’s conversation, but as Roberts noted, the symposium organizers had not intended for the discussion to be a debate about whether or not the sales should have taken place. Roberts did ask Shields about the opposition, which has not waned in the three year since that sale had happened. Shields responded he wasn’t surprised by the criticism, but by the vitriol that came with it.
“You can always do things better,” he said. “We thought we were doing things well. The conversations we were having with our consultants were so fluid and dynamic … Intrusion by people from outside of the community didn’t help. I think the reaction would have been the same, no matter what. I’m not sure what has caused what I would call an irrational response.
“It was well thought out – we lost control of the narrative and never got a chance to explain what we were doing because every conversation was smothered by the conversation about selling the art, not about what we were trying to do. The local newspaper did not help, in my opinion.”