STOCKBRIDGE - As the uniquely contentious legal dispute draws to a close, what are we to make of the settlement negotiated by Attorney General Maura Healey and lawyers for the Berkshire Museum? By allowing all of the 40 works to be sold, the attorney general has heedlessly opened the door to selling art for purposes of clearing a deficit, renovating a gallery or strengthening an endowment, long regarded by professional museum associations as unethical policy.
Considering the Berkshire Museum's most troubling ethical lapses in handling the excessively large deaccessioning of art work, just how do we put this in its proper perspective? Perhaps it is largely akin to a divorce whereby the parties negotiate the partitioning of the assets and their destinations; in this case, the entire 40 works that make up the corpus of the art collection will be sold and dispersed to private collectors. They may all leave Berkshire County, a heartbreaking loss for all who value these works.
In light of the Berkshire Museum's ethical breaches that had been extensively outlined in previous legal battles by the Commonwealth's top lawyer, it is a weak and wholly unsatisfactory denouement. And yet in a stunning recent development, Maura Healey inexplicably backed away from any concrete punitive action.
But lest we label this a mere slap on the wrist; seen in the context of state courts overall restraint in interfering with museum autonomy, particularly with regard to collection policy and management, the attorney general's stipulation of an arranged sale of Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop" to a public museum, may be looked upon as slightly beyond the expected norm of nonintervention. Courts are generally reluctant to craft laws governing self-regulating nonprofit boards and tend to shy away from legal reforms for museum stewardship.
With this in mind, given that one of the Rockwell paintings is protected from disappearing into private hands, the negotiated compromise is one small victory for the community. Nonetheless, the attorney general's controversial decision to allow 39 works to be sold with no restraints on the use of the proceeds arouses speculation about pressure from local and state politicians to back down and tow the line. A gift to the neglected Pittsfield of a neat $50 million economic boost benefiting bank and construction coffers will doubtlessly be flaunted by its politicians.
A precedent established
Naturally, it begs the question of to what degree will this open the floodgates for museums with appreciated art work to head to auction and use proceeds to fund endowments, renovations and operating expenses? Well, most assuredly this decision will have a resounding effect on institutions, given the strength of the global art market, the sheer number of museums, the challenges of yearly and capital fundraising and the migration of wealth to regions of the country, set against the backdrop of economically struggling areas that were prosperous decades ago. Public institutions, whether they be museums, historical societies, libraries, or universities with appreciated art that have no restrictions on their sale, will risk disapproval and condemnation to shore up balance sheets and embark on building projects. Some planned sales could well mushroom into protracted Berkshire Museum-like debacles.
While major deaccessioning cases have appeared in wealthy cities such as New York and Boston, they are likely to appear in areas of the country that socioeconomically are most at risk. Museums are predictably tied to their communities and we have witnessed many cities, once prosperous, decline in areas such as the rust belt, the Midwest and upstate New York.
By contrast, the wealth centers of Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles and the San Francisco bay area have new flourishing museums, art galleries, and many wealthy collectors and donors to ensure a vibrant art scene. Not so with cities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New England and upstate New York where museums that were once prosperous entities founded and supported by wealthy 19th and early 20th century industrialists have experienced a wealth migration over many decades. It is likely these struggling museums will be more inclined to operate outside of the parameters of ethical deaccessioning.
But rather than seeing this as a muddied compromise by lawyers and judges entrusted with museum oversight, what is important here is to recognize the unified, organized response by a grass roots coalition firmly opposed to the sale of an art collection with paintings and sculpture interwoven into the emotional fabric of the community for generations. It is their herculean, hard fought efforts that brought this to the attention of the public, and the local and national media. Their actions inevitably spared the Rockwell painting from disappearing into private hands. And along the way, these efforts resulted in a template of action for communities faced with similar scenarios.
While there will be no homecoming parties planned for these beloved works of art, there is some comfort in knowing that one Rockwell painting will be better cared for, exhibited and preserved by an institution that will value it in a way it deserves. Regrettably, after many Berkshire Museum blunders and legal roller coaster rides, this may just be as good as it gets.
Lynn Villency Cohen is an art historian and writer.