Berkshire Museum: Monday Morning Quarterback

Sifting Through the Rubble

By: - Feb 12, 2018

As volunteer firemen in Maine tell distraught home owners “Your house burned down but we saved the cellar hole.”

When an injunction to halt the sale of 40 works from the Berkshire Museum expired on Friday those who opposed gutting the collection were shocked and dismayed by a “compromise.”

There were global news reports over the weekend. Rather like trying to figure out what went wrong with the game there has been Monday morning quarterbacking and finger pointing.

The alleged good news, really just a smoke screen, is that the Norman Rockwell masterpiece “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” is being sold to a non profit museum. Some 120 days after the sale it will be delivered to the Norman Rockwell Museum. There it will have a curtain call for as long as two years. Part of the spin is that it will, at some vague time in the future, be loaned to other Massachusetts Museums. The MFA and Worcester Art Museum have been bandied about.

It is likely that there will be long lines to view a curtain call of the painting at the Rockwell Museum. Bottom line, after that, the painting, one of two that the artist gave in perpetuity to the people of the Berkshires, will be gone forever.

When Maura Healey, the Attorney General, won an injunction back in November as the clock ticked down on a sale at Sotheby’s, there was guarded optimism. While saving face with some minor points analysts want to know why the AG caved and played possum?

The ethically and morally challenged museum director, Van Shields, and board president, Elizabeth McGraw, have been given carte blanche to gut the fine arts collection, rip apart and renovate the historic structure, then proceed with their populist/ vulgarian New Vision.

The eccentric Berkshire Museum, so treasured by many, has crashed and burned. Like the cat that ate the canary, through the museum’s hired PR flacks, they have the temerity to speak of healing and uniting the community.

While striking a fatal blow to those who protested to save the museum this pending judicial decision has far reaching consequences.

A statement released on Friday affirms professional concerns.

 “The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and The Association of Art Museum (AAMD) believe firmly that the sale of works from collections to fund non-collection-related expenses is a violation of the public trust, and is not the path to financial sustainability for museums. On the contrary: the more museums violate the trust of their donors and the public, the more it will diminish the volume of future donations—both cash and objects—and lead to the need for more such sales. The professional practice standards of our two organizations remain in place precisely to avoid such a scenario affecting the wider museum field.

“This is exactly the threat posed by the Berkshire Museum’s plans. 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.

“We are grateful to the Attorney General’s Office for dedicating the resources to examining this issue of public trust in detail.”

With an endowment currently stated as some $6 million, and running a $1 million plus annual deficit, the museum defended its pending fire sale as its only hope to save the museum from certain closing.  We would like to know how much of that meager endowment the museum spent on attorneys, PR and marketing consultants?

Critics have challenged why the museum needs some 50 to 60 million dollars to ensure its future. The AG has signed off on that without restrictions, but a cap, on $50 million. The next $5 million after that would go to a separate fund for acquisitions including but not restricted to the fine arts.

In compliance with ethical guidelines it makes sense that the first not last $5 million should go to an acquisition fund. And that, following the concept of apples for apples, it be confined to the fine arts. The conventional paradigm is to sell art to buy art. The AG did not press for any concessions to preserve the collections or to appoint a curator to oversee its thousands of objects from paintings to butterflies. The basics of museology do not appear to be a concern for the "visionary" Shields.

With appeals it was speculated that the sale could be held up for months and even years. When push came to shove it appears that the AG was pressing a weak case. It lacked the stomach and resources for a protracted fight. With weak coffers for costly litigation it is puzzling that the AG didn’t press its clear advantage to leverage a better deal.

As the Eagle reported “But critics of the sale question why the Attorney General’s Office backed away from its own assertions in court filings that museum trustees had mismanaged their affairs and that restrictions on the works prevented their sale.”

The one false positive of the “compromise” entails the sale of the Rockwell masterpiece to a 501C3 museum. It is likely that a deal was in the works since the sale was blocked in November. Perhaps it was viewed as a firewall to guarantee emergency funds in the event that the court blocked the sale of the other 39 works.

Given the hardball, stonewall approach of Shields, McGraw and their supporters the Rockwell deal is unlikely as an act of charity or concession to its critics.

The auction house put a pre sale value of $20 to $30 million on the Rockwell painting. There is irony that the Rockwell brand and value has benefitted from months of global media. The epic fight over the fate of the work affirms the artist’s reputation. It has raised the equity of his legacy and enhanced the Stockbridge museum that represents him.

Considering that Sotheby’s has contracts with the museum how does it monetize this now non auction sale? In the boilerplate of the “compromise” it has been stated that other works “can” avoid the block and be sold, even for lesser value, to museums. Much of that is speculative and iffy particularly if Sotheby’s stands to make less money.

Laurie Norton Moffett, the founding director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, was among the first to call for the Berkshire Museum to “pause” its pending sale. What role did she play in negotiations for the disposition of the artist’s masterpiece?

As the Eagle reported in its Monday morning sorting of the tea leaves “Laurie Norton Moffatt, CEO and executive director of the Rockwell museum, said her institution did not participate in settlement talks between the attorney general and the Pittsfield museum.

“The Stockbridge museum was 'not a party' to the agreement, she said, and only learned last week it might be called upon to play a role in the resolution of the case.

“That came in the form of not-so-hypothetical question: Would it accept a loan of “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” if it were purchased by another museum?

“Norton Moffatt indicated the answer was easy.

“Of course the museum said that it would be very pleased to accept a loan of this very important work for as long as the prospective institution was willing to loan it,” she said by email Sunday, in response to questions from The Eagle.”

Until the deal is sealed the Berkshire Museum declines to identify the individual or museum negotiating to purchase “Shuffleton’s Barber Shop.” In our Saturday coverage we made the “educated guess” that the painting will be sold to Alice Walton and Crystal Bridges. The Monday reports, by Artnet and The Art Newspaper, confirm that possibility and add the name of George Lucas.

Artnet reports “
Although it remains a mystery which museum that agreed to buy the Rockwell, speculation immediately turned to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the deep-pocketed Arkansas institution founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton. (It wouldn’t be the first time Crystal Bridges has stepped in to buy a trove of work from a struggling museum amid a firestorm of controversy. In 2012, it purchased a major group of American artworks donated by the artist Georgia O’Keeffe from Fisk University in Nashville.) Crystal Bridges did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Meanwhile, others have suggested that the work might be headed to the forthcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas. The fact that the museum is not due to open until 2021 might explain the lengthy loan to local institutions. A representative for the Berkshire Museum declined to name the buyer, as did others involved with the sale and litigation.

Artnewspaper reports that “Potential buyers include George Lucas and Alice Walton, prominent collectors of Rockwell's work who both have private museums. A spokesman for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, due to open in Los Angeles, would not comment on the Berkshire Museum agreement.”

While saving the collections and museum as we have known it appears to be a lost cause we got an upbeat e mail from an arts activist. “Hold on tight, there just may be a plot twist coming.” Will there be a Hail Mary toss to the endzone as the clock ticks down?