Letter: Public must know full story on art sale
To the editor:
The Eagle's Aug. 1 editorial, "Lack of openness is undermining the museum's cause," raises important matters as to the decisions made by the Berkshire Museum board and the refusal to provide the information requested to The Eagle and the public.
I understand the passions relating to the proposed sale of 40 of the museum's most important art paintings and other objects. However, I believe there is a threshold question that should be addressed prior to the issue of whether or not the museum should dispose of the art. Does the museum have the right to sell the 40 works of art or not? Most, if not all, were gifts to the museum, which has failed to disclose the full story of the terms of such gifts and the commitments of the museum. While the director states that there are no limitations on sale, that does not seem to be so clear.
In response to the gift of "Shuffleton's Barber Shop" in 1958, the museum director wrote to Norman Rockwell, "We are delighted to have it for our permanent collection." (Emphasis added). It is an important matter of legal intent as to what that meant — that may constitute a firm commitment to retain the painting.
I believe The Eagle and the public have a right to review all documents that may relate to the legal authority of the museum to sell the art in question: the letters between the donors and the museum, minutes of the board discussing such issues, internal memoranda, public statements of commitment and purpose. Only a legal analysis of such material can determine if the museum indeed has the right to sell, or if it is committed to retaining certain of the art pursuant to the terms of the gift or the commitments of the museum.
For example, subsequent board minutes or internal memoranda may reflect discussions on possible sale with a conclusion that the museum could not sell one or more of the works of art. If that is so, there should be analysis of whether the museum is justified in now determining that it does have the right to sell. Without a determination of this threshold issue, it is not clear as to the museum's legal authority to dispose of these works of art.
Public awareness of the above also has a clear impact on the credibility of the museum.
Martin S. Kaplan,
The writer is a member of the Massachusetts Bar and former trustee of charitable foundations and trusts.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.