Laurie Norton Moffatt: Inviting a pause on sales of art
STOCKBRIDGE — When I was young, I regularly roamed the halls of the Berkshire Museum. I learned about vast oceans and fields through collections of shells and minerals, birds and predators. I envisioned Arctic exploration and native life. I studied every town in Berkshire County on a topographical map that lit up when you pressed the buttons. It revealed the tapestry that is the Berkshires. It gave me a sense of place.
At that time, young people were not permitted upstairs where the art lived unless accompanied by an adult. What a thrill it was to go there, to feel overshadowed by the towering sculptures, or spooked by the mummy, and awed by the masterly artworks on the walls. What new worlds this art revealed.
This was Berkshire Museum founder Zenas Crane's vision of an educational space for the citizens of the Berkshires — a place that was grounded in the world around us, steeped in the history of our forebears. And if the dioramas, maps, and other exhibits taught us about the natural history of the region and world, the artworks upstairs offered a vision not only of nature but also of the humanity that inhabits it, opening our eyes to what humans are uniquely capable of creating. Without this, the picture to which I was privy as a child would have been incomplete.
Today, the Berkshire Museum is set to sell 40 irreplaceable artistic treasures at auction as it seeks to fund the creation of a $40 million endowment and extensive $20 million renovation. The museum is to be commended for its months of study to map a sustainable future. The position it finds itself in, and the decision as how to rectify that, raise very complex issues. My primary concern is what it means to the Berkshire community to lose those 40 works of art, which are among the community's greatest treasures, and which we cannot get back.
An idea of what we stand to lose may emerge if we look at Norman Rockwell's tour de force Shuffleton's Barbershop, a painting that is particularly dear to me. As Zenas Crane invited us to look outward toward the expansiveness of the world, in Shuffleton's Barbershop Rockwell invites us to peer inward, through a window into the world of a small community, gathered in the back room of a barbershop in the quiet evening hours. But before we get there, we must peer through that window and the receding space of the barbershop, traversing a myriad of objects that evoke the daily life of the shop and the barber and through them, the town. With boots, shaving mugs, towels, a rifle, a stove and coal bucket, a fishing rod, a broom, a settee, and so much more that it's hard to see how Rockwell fit them all into the canvas, these conspire to give us an almost tactile sense of the era and the place.
Shuffleton's Barbershop is not, as has been stated, a redundant Rockwell, a footnote to the superb collection down the road at the Norman Rockwell Museum. It is, rather, a unique masterpiece and one of Rockwell's very best paintings that he gifted to the Berkshire Museum and the people of Berkshire County for education and enjoyment. It is one of the 40 artworks that Pittsfield and Berkshire County residents and visitors alike will lose if this painting is sent to auction.
Although the list of art works targeted for auction has not been made public, other works that the museum plans to send to the auction block include examplars of the Hudson River School (among them Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt,) paintings that endow the American landscape with a sense of majesty and the sublime — qualities that also characterize our Berkshire landscape — and suggest that nature offered refuge from encroaching industrialization. They, too, may soon be gone.
For the museum's leadership, the potential price that these irreplaceable artistic treasures could fetch seems to have obscured their very rich role in the life of the Berkshires. It is easy to think of artworks as financial assets, and to assign them a monetary value. It is difficult to put into words their intrinsic and emotional value, their ability to expand a horizon, invite a journey into the interior of oneself.
It is also worth noting that most museums that have resorted to de-accessioning have not, in fact, rebooted their finances. To think that selling the art will save the future is simply to push the challenge down the road while diminishing the strength of the institution. Disassembling the unique treasure that is our regional museum to save it, is not saving it. Art is central to the whole story of the Berkshires, and is a cornerstone of our creative economy, so selling these treasured assets actually poses a debilitating economic ripple effect beyond the museum, not to mention would be a profound spiritual loss to the community.
The Berkshire Museum faces challenges like other arts institutions across the country. A structural deficit for arts organizations and museums is a byproduct of the lack of value we place on the importance of the arts and the unwillingness of government to be a partner to the arts.
I appreciate the struggle the Berkshire Museum faces. As a museum director, I know the annual challenge of raising our budget, supporting our staff, maintaining collections and facilities while undercapitalized, and creating contemporary and meaningful experiences for our audiences. Yet this is my role and responsibility. It comes with the privilege of stewarding a museum.
Pittsfield and the Berkshires have something that most American cities don't have: a world-class regional museum created by the generosity of enlightened philanthropists, artists, and families who have believed in and treasured the idea of a museum as central to a community's spiritual and cultural life. They did not donate objects and artworks to the museum so that they could later be "monetized" and sold off. The idea that great museums elsewhere in the Berkshires — the Clark Art Institute, Norman Rockwell Museum, and Mass MoCA — make it less important for the Berkshire Museum to hold art central to its mission is surely embraced only for its expedience.
This essay is written with sincere kindness toward the leaders and with respect for the efforts that led to this seemingly inevitable decision. However, the process must be paused to invite fuller discussion about what our community stands to lose. I hope this essay will trigger discussion and reevaluation of the decision to de-accession, which though quite far down the road, is not irrefutable or irreversible.
Laurie Norton Moffatt is the director/CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum.