Big reveal from Attorney General due on Berkshire Museum art sale
When a status report or statement arrives Monday from the Attorney General's Office, it will join these other milestones in the Berkshire Museum art-sale controversy:
• July 12: Museum officials announce a plan to sell 40 works from the collection and use proceeds to build an endowment to ensure financial stability and to pursue building renovations related to its "New Vision" project.
• Late July: Three national museum groups oppose the plan to use auction proceeds for a project and the endowment. They include the Association of Art Museum Curators, the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums.
• Sept. 5: Executive Director Van Shields confirms that because of the plan, he had withdrawn the museum's relationship with the Smithsonian Institution. The institutions had been affiliated since April 2013.
• Sept. 20: Massachusetts Cultural Council asks museum leaders to halt the sale of artworks; the group suspends its fiscal year 2018 funding to a museum. The council's executive director, Anita Walker, calls the museum's plan a "violation" of the public trust.
• Sept. 25: Nancy Edman Feldman resigns from museum board at its annual meeting. Her departure follows that in August of Carol Riordan, who had abstained from the July 12 vote to sell art. "I resigned because I didn't agree with the strategic direction the museum was taking," said Riordan, the board's treasurer.
• Oct. 20: A group of plaintiffs, including Pittsfield artist Tom Patti and three sons of artist Norman Rockwell, files a civil lawsuit seeking an injunction halting the sale. The suit names the attorney general as a part of interest, compelling that office to file a response.
• Oct. 26: Three residents of Lenox file suit in Suffolk Superior Court also seeking an injunction; the cases are combined.
• Nov. 1: Judge John A. Agostini of Berkshire Superior Court holds a hearing on the combined cases. Near the end of hearing, the lead lawyer for the state asks that if plaintiffs are found to lack standing it be entered as a plaintiff.
• Nov. 7: Agostini denies the request for an injunction and criticizes the Attorney General's handling of its review of the deaccession and sale.
• Nov. 10: The attorney general seeks and secures a preliminary injunction from Justice Joseph A. Trainor of the Massachusetts Appeals Court. The 30-day order bars the art sale, forcing seven Berkshire Museum works to be pulled from a Nov. 13 auction at Sotheby's in New York City. Other works are also removed from three other auctions that week.
• Dec. 13: Trainor extends the injunction through Jan. 29.
• Dec. 18: The Appeals Court does not grant the museum's request to lift the prohibition on Superior Court action. It denies the museum's bid to expedite an appeal at the appellate level.
• Jan. 29: Attorney general asks to extend the injunction and due date for its status report for one week, until Feb. 5. Trainor grants that on Feb. 1, and says there will be no more extensions.
PITTSFIELD — Cue another slow drum roll on the Berkshire Museum art-sale saga.
A week ago, the Attorney General's Office faced a judge's deadline to report on the status of its investigation into a proposed $60 million off-loading of the museum's most valuable pieces.
But instead of showing its hand, the office asked for another week. It wanted to analyze its findings after having gathered more than 5,000 documents and interviewed dozens of people.
Three days went by, with the request "under advisement."
Halfway through the week, word came. The state secured what seemed to be grudging approval from a Massachusetts Appeals Court justice.
The decision late Thursday from Justice Joseph A. Trainor extended an injunction barring art sales until Monday; it was the third time Trainor had initiated or renewed such a barrier.
But the justice drew a line: "No further extension should be anticipated," he wrote.
Today, it's again deadline time — on a case watched by the art industry around the world.
The museum announced July 12 it would sell 40 artworks, including two paintings by Norman Rockwell, to address financial problems that left it at risk of closing.
Two civil lawsuits, then intervention by Healey's office, halted the start of those sales in November, even as a first batch of works, including the Rockwell paintings, were on exhibit at Sotheby's in New York City.
Trainor's ruling Thursday said he wanted a report from the office of Attorney General Maura Healey on or before Monday.
In the intervening week, her office is believed to have engaged with the museum not as inquisitor, but as a possible partner — which historically has been the office's preferred stance with nonprofits and public charities.
That is, until the Berkshire Museum case upended tradition.
Healey's office signaled in a brief statement Jan. 29 that even as it reviewed what it would make public Monday, it was thinking of the Pittsfield institution's well-being and future.
Healey's office said it would use the added week to consider ways to "secure the future of the Museum and ensure it is able to thrive in the years to come."
Though neither her office nor the museum would comment, The Eagle confirmed an effort was underway to find a compromise.
If so, state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, may be playing a role.
In November, Hinds praised museum trustees for taking action to confront financial challenges, but said they may need to consider compromise. He urged parties to the dispute to find common ground.
Hinds has met multiple times with members of the Save the Art group opposed to the sale, according to people who participated in those conversations.
Hinds did not respond last week to a request to discuss his efforts to resolve the controversy.
The attorney general's statement last week about securing the museum's future supports Berkshire Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini's view, in a Nov. 7 ruling, that the state has been "a reluctant warrior" in the museum fight.
For its part, the museum was also looking ahead this past week, when asked what it hoped to hear from the attorney general's report. Spokeswoman Carol Bosco Baumann said the museum remains "eager to resolve these issues to secure the museum's long term future."
Hints of reconciliation worry some opponents of the sale.
"I'm concerned because a lot of people are interpreting negotiation as compromise, and I don't feel there is a compromise," said Carol Diehl of Housatonic, a member of the Save the Art group.
"That means, to me, selling paintings," added Diehl, who said she was speaking for herself and not the group.
As they waited for the state to weigh in, both the museum and the Save the Art group reiterated their original arguments, in separate statements last week.
Sotheby's confirmed it has custody of works, including the Rockwell paintings. No sale dates are scheduled.
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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