For the last few months, a BIG controversy going on in the art and museum world has been the decision of the Berkshire Museum, located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to sell off 40 of the objects in its collection, including paintings by some of America’s most important artists. That decision has incurred the wrath of art experts and museum executives around the world, and not without consequence to the museum. At the same time however, the upcoming sale of the Berkshire’s art treasures will give other institutions an excellent opportunity to pick up some major works of art, which in some cases have never appeared on the market before.
Earlier this summer the Berkshire announced that, after a two-year period of soul-searching, it will shift its curatorial focus in order to survive as an institution. To do so, it would have to sell off a significant number of works of art in its collection. It wants to build up its endowment, renovate its facilities, pay the bills, and change from a more traditional, catch-all small museum to one focused on the promotion of science and community activities. You can read more about that process by following this link.
The Berkshire’s decision was condemned by art and museum experts around the world, but more importantly earned the ire of both the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), both of which provide professional accreditation to the Berkshire, as well as to hundreds of other American museums. Sale of a work of art in a museum’s collection – known in the trade as “deaccession” – in order to purchase another work of art is, while rarely a good thing, a reality for many institutions; the sale of a work of art to fund other purposes however, may be considered a professional ethical violation by the AAM and AAMD.
In an excoriating joint press release released in July, which you can read in full here, the two professional bodies condemned the Berkshire’s decision to deaccession its art:
Selling from the collection for purposes such as capital projects or operating funds not only diminishes the core of works available to the public, it erodes the future fundraising ability of museums nationwide. Such a sale sends a message to existing and prospective donors that museums can raise funds by selling parts of their collection, thereby discouraging not only financial supporters, who may feel that their support isn’t needed, but also donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls. That cuts to the heart not only of the Berkshire Museum, but every museum in the United States.
About 6 weeks later, the Berkshire announced that, by mutual agreement, it was withdrawing from affiliation with the Smithsonian. As the reader probably knows, the Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum organization in the world. It not only runs nearly two dozen museums and research centers of its own, but it maintains affiliate relationships with well over 200 museums around the country. These arrangements allow smaller museums to have access to Smithsonian curatorial expertise, scientific research, lending privileges for exhibitions, and so on. Given the difficulty and indeed the prestige involved in becoming a Smithsonian affiliate institution, abandoning that relationship is not something to be taken lightly – but there you are.
I’m not going to weigh in on the deaccession controversy here, other than to say that selling major works of art from your collection, so that you can have a place to teach local kids how graffiti is cool, with the result that they grow into anti-social, juvenile delinquents inordinately impressed by their own cleverness, is a stupid idea.
Among the works of art scheduled to go on the auction block at Sotheby’s this fall are two major paintings by Norman Rockwell, which the artist personally donated to the museum during his lifetime, and whose sale has infuriated the Rockwell family. The earlier work of the two, “Blacksmith’s Boy” (1940) is rather massive, at almost 6 feet long, but that should just fit over your sofa, if you’ve got $7-10 million sitting around.
The later Rockwell painting, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop”, is a compositional tour de force of complex angles, surfaces, and lighting effects, a truly major work by America’s foremost illustrator of the 20th century, which entirely justifies its $20-30 million dollar auction estimate.
Other paintings up for sale include works by Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Edwin Church, and George Inness, arguably the three most important American landscape painters of the 19th century. There is also a prime example of one of Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s (great-uncle of my friend and new media gadfly Neal Dewing) classic Tonalist interiors populated by languid ladies of leisure.
And there is a rare, large religious work depicting the prophet Daniel interpreting the handwriting on the wall for King Belshazzar by the 18th century American academic and historical painter, Benjamin West.
Also on offer are portraits by Charles Wilson Peale and his son Rembrandt Peale. The Peales, as you may know, were America’s most famous family of artists during the Revolutionary and Federal periods, who painted iconic portraits of everyone from Washington and Jefferson to Lewis and Clark. The Berkshire is selling off its portrait of General Forman, by Peale the father, and General Washington, by Peale the son.
In addition to the forgoing there are also sculptures by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Alexander Calder, two of the most prominent American sculptors of the early and mid-20th century, respectively. Continental works include paintings by William Bougereau, Raoul Dufy, Pieter de Hooch, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edouard Vuillard, and others. There are even a few Chinese antiquities, including a massive, 10-panelled lacquered screen from the late 17th century Qing Dynasty.
Not every piece heading to the Berkshire auction is by a major household name in art history, of course. Still, every one that I’ve seen listed for sale is certainly museum-worthy. It’s a pity that the collection could not have been preserved, and given to a museum on better financial and philosophical footing. But in the end, whether purchased by other museums or acquired by collectors who later donate their collections to museums, these works may end up being better-known and more widely seen, once they leave the institution where they are currently housed.