Letter: Museum shouldn't drop its role in fine arts
To the editor:
When the Berkshire Museum was founded it brought the fine arts to a community then remote from urban cultural centers or the treasures of Europe. Like many museums of that era, it displayed plaster casts of classical and renaissance masterpieces as well as dinosaurs and examples of taxidermy. It always had eclectic interests.
There is a vast and diverse collection with depth in 19th century American art, Hudson River School paintings, and Native American objects.
Two of the 40 works of art, with a pre-auction estimated value of $50 million that the museum plans to sell to "reboot" include painting by Norman Rockwell. Is Calder's Circus among the 38 undisclosed items? What are the plans for its collections?
This is not the first time that a museum, college, library or cultural institution has opted to deaccession its treasures. For art museums there are guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors which state that money from sales of works of art can only be used to improve and conserve the collections. In no circumstance may this money be used for endowment or other reasons.
There are 175 members of AAMD in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. When a member of this professional organization violates deaccession rules there are sanctions. There is no legal authority to enforce the rules other than shunning violators.
There is the ethical and moral leverage of communities served by those museums and institutions. If protections are not in place treasures entrusted to their care are viewed by trustees as expendable assets.
The museum has informed The Eagle that Van Shields, the director of the Berkshire Museum, backed by its board of trustees, is not a member of AAMD and that his institution is not a fine arts museum. Accordingly the museum can sell these works with impunity.
In getting out of the fine arts it has no plans for these valuable objects. Rockwell is represented by a local museum that bears his name. To keep the works in the Berkshires the museum might consider selling or loaning the paintings to that museum.
That the museum is not a fine arts museum will come as news to many artists, past and present, who were supported through exhibitions and collections. The Berkshire Museum was unique in its commitment to regional artists. That is not the case for Mass MoCA, the Clark Art Institute, or Williams College Museum of Art.
When Debra Balkan was curator and the museum was under Stuart Chase, Shields' predecessor, it had ambitious programming. In 2012 there was Rethink American Indian Art which combined works from its permanent collection with six contemporary artists. In 2011 there was an exhibition of Berkshire-based collectors Jay and Jane Braus and the blockbuster MC Escher: Seeing the Unseen.
These and other projects were assets, not liabilities.
If the museum is no longer in the fine arts, through lack of interest, leadership and curatorial vision it has been a long time coming. It is a major loss for our community and its artists.
The writer is publisher/editor Berkshire Fine Arts.
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