Berkshire Museum won't pursue further art sales, Crane Room renovation

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PITTSFIELD — The two Berkshire Museum paintings sold at auction this month will be the last to go on the block any time soon, trustees decided Monday.

And the historic Crane Room at the center of the 39 South St. facility will not be transformed into a cavernous atrium space, as originally envisioned.

The sale to date of 22 works from the museum's collection raised a net of $53.25 million after expenses, including legal fees paid to counter challenges by two groups of plaintiffs and, for a time, the office of Attorney General Maura Healey.

While that net is $1.75 million less than allowed by a Supreme Judicial Court order in April, trustees are opting to halt any further sales. Healey's office recently advised the museum that it should discontinue sales and attend to repairing its relations with a community split over the decision to sell its masterworks, including two paintings by Norman Rockwell, to solve its budget problems.

A question to the museum about whether the AG's guidance influenced the decision to stop sales went unanswered as of 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.

One critic of the sales said Tuesday that she believes community opposition helped steer a number of the works removed from the museum's collection to institutional buyers able to keep them accessible to the public. 

"That was a win," said Lynn Villency Cohen of Stockbridge. But like other members of the community group Save the Art-Save the Museum, Cohen believes the institution could have righted its financial ship without selling what she and others maintain was the core of the collection.

"It's a very dark situation," Cohen said. "It's a cemeterylike feel where you have this absence of the best pieces. There was a way of doing it without piercing the hearts of all these community members."

The museum noted Tuesday that while it was approved to sell 40 works, it stopped at 22.

Elizabeth McGraw, chairwoman of the museum's board, said in the statement that the focus now is to enable a century-old building "to function as a 21st century museum."

"The museum will continue to include art, science, and history. Objects from our collection will be presented in a new way that allows these three areas to combine in exhibits that provide new interpretations and relevance to historical objects," McGraw said in the statement.

By selling the works, McGraw indicated, trustees have assured that the museum will remain open for generations to come. 

Hope Davis, a Great Barrington resident, said members of Save the Art are pleased that no more works will be sold and that the Crane Room will be left intact. But they are also dismayed by what has been lost.

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"We are glad they are stopping this late in the game, but they sold the most valuable and important art," Davis said of trustees. 

In the months ahead, she said, the museum should work to rebuild community trust by providing a more complete account of this year's transactions, including financial details involving the Sotheby's auction house and legal bills. The museum has said such matters are confidential. 

"The main issue going forward is the issue of transparency," Davis said. "The public is owed the respect of answers to those questions." 

Work ahead

Now, instead of pursuing the broad renovation presented to the public when it announced a "New Vision" in July 2017, the museum will attend to more prosaic building needs, according to a statement Tuesday.

Next spring, work will begin to protect the museum collection by waterproofing parts of the building. The museum also plans improvements to its loading dock and sewer lines; the expected cost of the work was not provided, and questions to the museum about expenses and how a contractor will be chosen were not answered in time for this story. 

"There are no structural changes planned to the Crane Room," the statement said.

That Art Deco space had been marked for an overhaul, in drawings shown to the public in 2017.

Other building changes highlighted earlier are apparently still in the mix. In its statement, the museum said it intends to expand its aquarium and will move to create "improved and enhanced exhibition and programming spaces." Plans for that work are not yet in place.

Though a more major building renovation involving the Crane Room is no longer planned, the museum said it will pursue the new approach to exhibitions that former Executive Director Van Shields outlined 16 months ago as part of the museum's New Vision. That phrase was not used in Tuesday's statement.

"The Board of Trustees and Museum staff remain committed to expanding interdisciplinary experiences to more deeply interpret the Museum's collection for all audiences," the statement said.

As museum officials have in the past, McGraw said the institution plans to continue to tap its art collection as part of the new interdisciplinary focus, saying that shift will make the museum's exhibitions and programs "ever more interesting, inspiring and engaging to the broad community in the region it serves."

At the same time, she suggested that such a move does not represent a break with how it has operated, calling its plans "consistent with our unchanged mission."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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