SAN FRANCISCO — It is illuminating perhaps that almost 80 years to the day before the Berkshire Museum released a joint press release with Sotheby's announcing its "New Vision" plan of July 12, 2017, the museum had held another major celebration of an alternative vision plan at the museum on June 25, 1937, which was widely reported in U.S. newspapers, including the New York Times ("Pittsfield is host at museum fete" June 26, 1937).
The occasion was a formal celebration of an alternative vision plan of an earlier era, which marked the opening of the newly designed "Ellen Crane Memorial Room" and the new auditorium on the first floor, which ingeniously recaptured what once was a narrow courtyard at the center of the building into a newly integrated whole for additional exhibition space.
The Memorial Room was specifically designed as a means of bringing the art world to Pittsfield in the form of loan exhibitions from other museums and private donors, and the inaugural exhibition was on view featuring an extraordinary grouping of landscapes from the 16th through the 20th centuries. Many of America's leading institutions, including MoMA, the Met, the National Gallery, Cleveland and MFA Boston, as well as leading dealers such as Knoedler & Co., Wildenstein and the Parisian firm Durand-Ruel contributed to the effort, as well as distinguished private collectors like Murray Crane, Robert Francis and Chauncey Tinker.
The exhibition included an exhilarating array of masterworks from old masters to contemporary art, by renowned artists such as Patanir, Guardi, Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, C zanne, Pissarro, Monet and Matisse. In its sheer breadth and diversity, it was perhaps the most significant retrospective in the pre-WWII period, a sheer triumph for the fledgling regional institution.
The museum also inaugurated on this occasion the newly minted auditorium downstairs, with an exhibition of ingenious abstract sculptures called for the first time "mobiles" by a young artist having his first public exhibition, Alexander Calder. "These mobiles, which are five feet high and three feet wide, stand six feet above the floor and fit into metal frames flush with the wall. They operate on vertical spindles, and colors are employed in their construction — red, blue, yellow, orange, green, black, white gray and tan."
Extending Crane's vision
Indeed, the pioneering female museum director, Laura Bragg, was among the first to recognize the importance of this seminal artist through this commission, bringing a landmark event in art history to the Pittsfield museum in its infancy, and thereby presciently extending Zenas Crane's founding vision of bringing the world of art into the heart of the Berkshires.
Undoubtedly, Bragg herself had also prudently deaccessioned a handful of works before, including Raftsman Playing Cards by George Caleb Bingham in 1934, but the proceeds were always retained for future acquisitions, and may have contributed to the acquisition of Calder's first museum commission.
It is striking therefore that some 80 years later, the "New Vision" plan of 2017 is a virtual inversion of these principles. Rather than inviting the art world in through collaboration with a host of museums, dealers and collectors, the current administrators have culled highlights from the permanent collection assembled by generations of supporters and cast them off to auction, a selection apparently not guided by any curatorial prerogative, other than the significant market value of the deaccessioned works — including two of the mechanical toys Calder designed in the '30s and gifted to the museum, and until recently celebrated on the museum's website.
One wonders, then, if 80 years from now whether the vaguely promoted new science exhibits that will take their place — to "provide visitors with technology that allows them to interact in a variety of modalities" — and that would be purchased so dearly with the proceeds of this deaccession horde, will be viewed as revolutionary as Calder's first commission in 1937. Some have suggested that many of these interactive technology platforms become obsolete in a decade, as smartphones for example have replaced the old cumbersome mainframe displays, but the retreat from the old principles of inclusion, collaboration and thoughtful refinement is breathtaking to behold.
It may not be too late, perhaps, with the recent proposed sale of one Rockwell painting to another museum subject to court approval — which could stabilize the museum's finances — that the current administration might manage to slough off its blinkered reticence of recent months and perhaps revisit the lineaments of their impressive early history, and return to the vision and inspiration that brought Calder to their doors. The sheer notoriety of the deaccession fiasco might indeed encourage a similar cohort of museums and private collectors that supported them in 1937 to return once again in support of a loan exhibition or other aid if they were to retreat from this course of action — but they would need to embrace again the spirit of collaboration and inclusion that lies at the heart of every successful museum experiment that manages to thrive over generations, rather than retreat into occlusion and divestiture.
Otherwise, I fear, there may not be a museum to celebrate in hindsight 80 years hence.
Martin Gammon is the founder and president of Pergamon Art Group and the author of the forthcoming history of deaccessions at museums, "Deaccessioning and its Discontents: a Critical History" (MIT Press, May 2018).