A storm has been brewing since the summer in the quiet town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The town’s Berkshire Museum announced in July that it intended to put up 40 works of art for sale at Sotheby’s over a period ranging from November 2017 to March 2018.
The Museum justified its decision by its dire financial state as well as the need to fund a ‘reinvention plan’ and a ‘revamped’ business model.
The outcry was enormous and instantaneous. The pieces put up for sale include two works by Norman Rockwell, an icon of American art, whose depictions of a prosperous and industrious America are legendary. The Rockwell sales are deemed particularly objectionable as Rockwell, a local resident, had donated the works to the Berkshire rather than to his own family museum.
Second, the controversies surrounding deaccessionning are well known in the museum world. In 2014, a museum in Delaware incurred the wrath of the American Alliance of Museum, (AAM) which called for its members to stop loaning to or collaborating with the museum which had sought to sell parts of its permanent collection.
The Berkshire’s initiative has ben similarly condemned by the AAM and the Association of Art Museum Directors who wrote a letter reminding the Museum’s board that ‘one of the most fundamental and longstanding 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’.
The Berkshire then severed all connections with the Smithsonian Institution, since the projected sale would put it in breach of the Smithsonian policy that all its members abide by generally-accepted museum practice.
In early September, the Massachusetts Attorney-General announced that she would study the case, primarily to determine whether there had been a breach of the director’s fiduciary duties. Her conclusions are not yet known.
Meanwhile, Sotheby’s has already published pre-sale partial estimates and seems prepared to go-ahead with the sale of the first lots on November 20th.
The sale by the Berkshire has been described by some as ‘an assault on cultural patrimony’. This is very similar to the reaction in the UK museum community to the sale by Northampton Borough Council of the ancient Egyptian Sekhemka statue in 2014. As a result of the sale, Northampton lost its accreditation from the UK Museums Association and so was unable to obtain further government funding.