American Alliance of Museums

American Alliance of Museums ‘deeply opposes’ museum’s plan to sell 40 works of art

By Adrian Murphy. Main Image: Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Photograph by Alexius Horatius (Wikimedia Commons)

Berkshire Museum in Massachusetts has said it is to go ahead with a $60m (£45.3m) redevelopment that would improve its building, provide funds for its endowment, make capital investments, and pay for daily operations, by selling off $50m (37.7m) worth of artworks in its collection

Berkshire Museum announced its ‘New Vision’ on July 12 to create what it said would be ‘an exciting new interdisciplinary Museum, with a heightened emphasis on science and history as well as the arts’. It said the decision was made following nearly two years of research and would be specifically designed to better serve the wider Berkshire community. The redevelopment is expected to cost $20m; in addition the Museum will create a new endowment of at least $40m in order to provide financial stability for the future.

The museum plans to sell the works at a Sotheby’s auction, and expects to bring in $50 million from the sale. It says that the artworks ‘have been deemed no longer essential to the Museum’s new interdisciplinary programs [sic]’.

“The process undertaken by the Museum to reach this point has been thoughtful and thorough, marked by intense community engagement and involvement,” says Van Shields, the Museum’s executive director. “The vision for how the Museum can best serve Pittsfield and the Berkshires is a reflection of the wishes of the community that surrounds us. By aligning our vision to community needs today, we will ensure the Museum continues its century-long track record of success as a vital cultural and educational resource for Pittsfield and Berkshire County.”

Norman Rockwell's Shuffleton's Barbershop (1950, given to Berkshire Museum by the artist, is one of 40 artworks proposed for sale. (C) Norman Rockwell. WikiArt Fair Use

However, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), representing the US museum community, and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), representing 243 directors of North America’s leading art museums, are deeply opposed to the Berkshire Museum’s plans to sell works from its collection.

“One of the most fundamental and long-standing principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset,” said a statement posted on its website on July 25. “This prohibition is upheld by both AAMD and by AAM, which sets accreditation standards for art museums, science centres, natural history museums, and historical museums.”

The two organisations say that Berkshire Museum’s decision undermines the public’s trust in the mission of nonprofit museums—and museums’ ability to collect, teach, study, and preserve works for their communities now and into the future and that once sold the artworks can never be recovered.

Henry Moore, Three Seated Figures (1942) is also planned to be sold by Berkshire Museum

It says that two of the works the Museum is currently planning to sell are important paintings by Norman Rockwell, given by the artist to the people of Pittsfield. “These works were entrusted by Rockwell to the Museum for safe-keeping and to share with the public.”

The other works proposed for sale are by many noted artists from America and around the world including the UK’s Henry Moore. “The Berkshire Museum contends that in order to be a good steward of their institution they must be a poor steward of their collection. We believe those two responsibilities are not mutually exclusive,” continued the AAM statement.

In response to the joint AAM and AAMD statement Berkshire Museum said: “The board and staff of the Berkshire Museum gave full consideration to the guidelines on deaccessioning published by the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors, and their response to our strategy is not unexpected. But we believe it is the right strategy for the future of the Berkshire Museum and for the future of Pittsfield.”