In recent art world news, last week the Berkshire Museum has secured court approval to sell as many as 40 artworks from its collection, including works by Alexander Calder, Albert Bierstadt, Francis Picabia, and Norman Rockwell, as part of a “deaccessioning plan” that has been widely criticized by “museum groups and arts advocates who say it could encourage other museums to sell off works they hold in public trust.”
In a ruling by Justice David Lowy of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued last Thursday, it was decided that “the museum had sufficiently established a need to sell the works, which could raise upwards of $55 million, in order to continue operations.” In reaching its decision, the court deferred to the state’s attorney general, who has oversight of charitable organizations in the state, and who had conducted an investigation and reached a conclusion in the museum’s favor. The court’s decision paves the way for at least some of the works to be auctioned for sale at Sotheby’s in New York, and for the private sale of the treasured Rockwell painting to an unnamed institution in a deal that was earlier approved by the state’s attorney general.
The museum’s leadership has said that it is running a structural deficit and without a cash infusion the museum will be forced to eventually close. In particular, the museum’s leaders have said that the ability to sell the artworks is necessary due to a decrease in fundraising opportunities in the region. Under professional guidelines, art sales are usually only allowed when funds are used to acquire other artworks or, in some instances, maintain a collection.
The museum has said that it intends to use the sale proceeds to build an endowment, renovate its building, and embark on a “New Vision” with particular emphasis on science and technology.
The Association of Art Museum Directors (“AAMD”) has said in a statement that the court’s decision “to approve the Berkshire Museum’s planned art sales addresses outstanding legal questions. [However,] [i]t does not resolve the violations of ethical and professional standards that will occur when the museum’s plans are implemented.” The AAMD is considering “censure and/or sanctions” against the museum in connection with any sales that result in funds being directed toward operations or endowments.
The earlier agreement reached between the attorney general’s office and the museum requires that the works be sold in three portions such that if the target figure ($55 million) is reached before one of the later portions is offered for sale, the later portions will not be sold. Those opposed to the sale argued that because the museum is able to structure the portions, a substantive restriction is not represented in the parties’ agreement.
For detailed coverage on the legal battle of the Berkshire Museum, please see “Berkshire Museum Sell-Off Approved by Top Massachusetts Court, Ending Lengthy Legal Battle,” published online by ArtNews on April 5, 2018.