Berkshire Museum Victory: Massachusetts Attorney General Agrees to Art Sales, With Rockwell Going to Public Institution, Some Conditions

Norman Rockwell, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, 1950.

COURTESY SOTHEBY’S

The Berkshire Museum is close to realizing its plan to sell artworks from its collection in order to raise funds and pursue a “New Vision” after more than six months of fervent debate on street corners and in editorial pages, an investigation by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, fierce opposition from museum groups, a closely followed court hearing in its hometown of Pittsfield, and a formidable number volume of legal filings.

Today, the Attorney General’s Office filed paperwork asking the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to approve a deal that will lead to the sale of at least some—and perhaps all—of the 40 works that were set to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s in New York back in November, before a court halted the sale so that the AGO could complete its review of the proposed sell-off.

In the filing, the AGO says that, though it believes there are restrictions that would typically prohibit the sale of such works, those restrictions should be lifted because of the dire state of the museum’s finances.

The deal comes with a few conditions, though none that seem likely to satisfy opponents of the sale, who have argued that the museum has overstated its financial distress and that the sell-off will hinder the ability of museums to attract donors. In a joint statement, the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors, which have opposed the museum’s move, said, “While the negotiated agreement with the Berkshire Museum may satisfy legal standards, it falls far short of ethical standards and best practices for museums. This is indeed a sad day for the arts community in the Berkshires and the museum community across the country.”

The agreement states that the key work deaccessioned by the museum, Norman Rockwell’s painting Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950), which Sotheby’s had estimated could sell for $30 million to $40 million, will be acquired for an undisclosed sum by an unnamed U.S. institution that will keep the work prominently on view. That masterwork was donated to the museum by Rockwell, and plans for its sale had led the artist’s three sons to file suit against the museum, saying that it violated his wishes as a donor.

In addition, the new filing states that the Berkshire Museum will be allowed to raise up to $55 million by selling the works in three tranches, meaning that if that sum is reached after the first or second tranche, the remaining works will not be sold. The museum will be allowed to use $50 million of the proceeds without restriction, the next $5 million will go to a fund to benefit the collection and to handle acquisitions, and any excess funds will also be held in a separate fund to benefit the museum’s collection and acquisition policies.

“This marks the beginning of efforts to bring communities back together,” William F. Lee, a lawyer for the museum, said in a conference call with press today, in which he called the agreement “an important step forward.”

Save the Art – Save the Museum, a group that has protested the sale, called the agreement “flawed” in a statement. “It flouts all standards of museum best practices and fails to honor the Berkshire Museum’s duty to the community’s cultural past or its future generations,” it said. “By leaving intact the current museum leadership, despite clear evidence of poor management and bad stewardship, the accord does nothing to protect the collection from future sales.”

Emily Snyder, the attorney general’s spokesperson, said in a statement, “Importantly, the agreement adheres to Massachusetts charities law and sets an important precedent for other museums that charitable organizations must act transparently and seek court approval to modify restrictions and sell charitable assets in accordance with their charitable mission and demonstrated financial need.”

In its filing, the AGO said that the museum had acted responsibly in seeking advice on fundraising and financial management, and that the $55 million figure should allow it to shore up its finances appropriately.

The Berkshire Museum said that the for-now anonymous institution that acquired Shuffleton’s Barbershop will first loan the prized Rockwell to the Norman Rockwell Museum, in nearby Stockbridge, for 18 to 24 months, and then consider loans to other museums in Massachusetts.

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