Leanne Hayden: An argument against the Berkshire Museum's planned sell-off

A model of the Berkshire Museum shows how the interior will be reconfigured as part of the recently announced renovation plan, which would be made possible by deaccession of some 40 works of art from the museum's collection.

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — I worked at the Berkshire Museum for 10 years as the collections manager, which does give me a unique perspective on the current conversation. Writing this was not an easy decision, as I respect the staff at the museum and many are my close friends, but I can't support the decision to sell what I consider some of the most important artwork and artifacts in their collection.

The Norman Rockwell paintings were given to the museum by Norman Rockwell. He once considered having his entire collection at The Berkshire Museum. Those two paintings are two of his finest.

A museum can't exist on admissions alone

First, allow me to establish some context. This move by the Berkshire Museum is not without precedent. With closures of museums across the landscape from the Higgins Armory to the American Textile History Museum, museums today face a real threat. Many museums have been faced with financial difficulty and look to the collection as a means to solve it. I currently work at a museum that almost closed the doors in 2001, was looking to disperse its collection, but was saved by several people who refused to see it happen and we are now in a much better place. The Berkshire Museum is in a tough position. It competes with an area filled with non-profits all needing support. A museum can't exist on admissions alone; it needs sponsors to support its educational programs and exhibitions, donations and grants to keep its operations going. The Berkshire Museum faces a very difficult landscape in that sense.

However, there is a reason that the museum community and the American Alliance of Museums condemns selling a collection to fund operations or renovations. The commonly held principle is that works of art shouldn't be considered liquid assets; they are records of human creativity that are held in the public trust. A museum's code of ethics is founded on public accountability, public trust, and public service. Why would anyone donate something to a museum if they thought it might be sold for profit? They want it there for future generations to enjoy. If a piece is to be deaccessioned and sold, it should only be to fund conservation of the collection or to purchase replacement objects for the collection; in other words, with the intention of improving the collection.

Are the changes really necessary?

The Berkshire Museum did this very thing not too long ago with the sale of several paintings by a Russian artist. Those paintings were sold to fund a museum-wide climate control system that would effectively conserve the other 30,000 objects. It was a difficult decision but after careful consideration and knowing those paintings had not been used in an exhibition for some time, the paintings were auctioned. The difference, as I see it this time, is they are deciding to auction off the best paintings in the collection, which are regularly on exhibit and used often in programs. The money is not going to conserve the collection or purchase additional artwork; it is going to unnecessary renovations of the building, to change the mission of the museum and fundamentally change the museum overall without really knowing the true benefits. Some of the money will go to build back the endowment, which should be the main focus of any effort to help the museum. However, I am not convinced these new renovations are necessary or of any real help to the museum overall. As I recall, the museum largely gets the same amount of people through the doors every year without too much variation. There are only so many people who live in and visit the area. Will these renovations increase donations, sponsorship or grants that are needed to support the museum?

I am not against deaccessioning or auctioning off objects in the collection. It is common museum practice. If those objects do not support the mission of the museum or are in poor condition, it can be necessary to make room for more appropriate pieces. However, if the museum can raise $10 million from the community, as is stated in the article, then that is all it should do and build up the endowment and make wise investments to fund its operations in the future.

To embark on major renovations a third time seems like hubris and has little to do with keeping a much-loved museum vibrant. I have seen too often a painting sold by a museum that was later deeply regretted by future generations. They may not stay in the public view but go into private hands, never to be seen again. The Berkshire Museum is defined by its collection. It is up to the community if they want it to change.

Leanne Hayden is the collections manager for the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine.