Sanctions Imposed on Berkshire Museum for Sale of Artworks

Posted May 27, 2018 4:57 p.m. EDT

One of the country’s professional museum organizations announced Friday that its board of trustees had voted to impose sanctions on the Berkshire Museum, which recently sold artworks to support an expansion initiative.

“Selling art to support any need other than to build a museum’s collection fundamentally undermines the critically important relationships between museums, donors and the public,” the organization, the Association of Art Museum Directors, wrote in a statement. “When museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, they diminish the opportunity and responsibility to make great works of art available to the public.”

The AAMD said the sanctions would be effective immediately and would include a request that each of the association’s 243 members refrain from lending works to the Berkshire Museum or collaborating with it on exhibitions.

A spokeswoman for the Berkshire Museum, Carol Bosco Baumann, called the sanctions regrettable.

“The possibility of sanctions was carefully considered by the board when deciding whether to de-accession any works to secure and sustain the museum’s future,” she said in an email. “We determined then and strongly believe now that to protect our most important asset — the museum’s open doors — it was necessary.”

The museum, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, sparked a widespread debate and drew vehement objections in summer 2017 when it announced plans to sell 40 pieces by artists like Norman Rockwell, Albert Bierstadt and Alexander Calder and use the proceeds to increase its endowment, renovate its building and expand programming.

Museum officials said revenue from sales was vital to the institution’s survival. Among those who criticized the plans were museum members and descendants of Rockwell. The AAMD, whose code of ethics says that artworks should be sold only in specific circumstances to add new works, condemned the planned sale in a letter with another organization, the American Alliance of Museums.

After lawsuits and conflicting court rulings, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, which has oversight of nonprofit organizations, agreed in February on a framework for the museum to sell as many as 40 works to raise up to $55 million.

Thirteen works, including Rockwell’s “Blacksmith’s Boy — Heel and Toe” and Frederic Edwin Church’s “Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada,” were offered for sale this month by Sotheby’s. The sales brought net proceeds of $42 million to the museum, it said.

“These auctions move the Berkshire Museum important steps forward by providing resources needed to secure the museum’s future,” Elizabeth McGraw, president of the museum’s board of trustees, said this past week in a statement. “We will take time now to consider how we will proceed, through possible auction and private sale, to gain the additional resources needed.”

The AAMD also announced that it would sanction the La Salle University Art Museum in Philadelphia, which recently sold works to raise money for the school.