Night­mare at the mu­seum: Art auc­tion trig­gers ethics dis­pute

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

AMas­sachusetts mu­seum's de­ci­sion to part with 40 artworks, in­clud­ing two by il­lus­tra­tor Nor­man Rock­well, has touched off a de­bate over whether it's ever eth­i­cal to sell pieces of the collection to pay the bills. The Berk­shire Mu­seum in Pitts­field has come un­der intense na­tional and lo­cal pres­sure after an­nounc­ing it's auc­tion­ing the art. Crit­ics say it's vi­o­lat­ing a car­di­nal rule of mu­se­ums: Don't sell stuff to pay the bills. "One of the most fun­da­men­tal and long-stand­ing prin­ci­ples of the mu­seum field is that a collection is held in the pub­lic trust and must not be treated as a dis­pos­able fi­nan­cial as­set," the Amer­i­can Al­liance of Mu­se­ums and the As­so­ci­a­tion of Art Mu­seum Di­rec­tors said in a joint state­ment. The sale would be an "ir­re­deemable loss," they added.

Les­lie Fer­rin, who runs an area com­pany that rep­re­sents artists, started a Face­book page for mem­bers of the lo­cal art com­mu­nity op­posed to the sale called "Save the art at the Berk­shire Mu­seum of Natural History and Art." Mem­bers of the group say they hope to con­vince the mu­seum to change its mind. "Sell­ing gifts is against ev­ery moral and eth­i­cal stan­dard" of run­ning a mu­seum, she said. At auc­tion, the pieces are likely go­ing to be sold to pri­vate col­lec­tors, and the pub­lic will lose ac­cess, Fer­rin said. The sale is nec­es­sary to en­sure the mu­seum's very ex­is­tence, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Van Shields said.

The money raised will help es­tab­lish a $40 mil­lion en­dow­ment and pay for $20 mil­lion in ren­o­va­tions as the mu­seum re­fo­cuses its mis­sion to be­come a more in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary and in­ter­ac­tive in­sti­tu­tion more ded­i­cated to history and sci­ence. "We are fac­ing an ex­is­ten­tial threat. We needed to adapt, mi­grate or go ex­tinct," he said. The art being auc­tioned in­cludes works by Al­bert Bier­stadt, Alexan­der Calder and Charles Wil­son Peale, but it's the Rock­well oil paint­ings that have stirred the deep­est emo­tions. "Black­smith's Boy -Heel and Toe" and "Shuf­fle­ton's Bar­ber­shop" were gifts to the mu­seum from Rock­well him­self, who called the re­gion home for the last 25 years of his life.

Changed dra­mat­i­cally

Lau­rie Nor­ton Mof­fatt, di­rec­tor of the nearby Nor­man Rock­well Mu­seum, has come out in op­po­si­tion to the sale. "For the mu­seum's lead­er­ship, the po­ten­tial price that these ir­re­place­able artis­tic trea­sures could fetch seems to have ob­scured their very rich role in the life of the Berk­shires," she wrote in an opinion piece in The Berk­shire Ea­gle news­pa­per. Shields re­spects the opin­ions of those op­posed to the sale, and said he and the mu­seum's trustees "knew we were go­ing to be pil­lo­ried," but added that the auc­tion is a done deal.

When the Berk­shire Mu­seum opened in 1903, it was the cultural beacon of the re­gion. It was founded by Ze­nas Crane, a mem­ber of the fam­ily that owned Crane & Com­pany, a paper man­u­fac­turer that to this day sup­plies paper used to make US cur­rency. Now it's over­shad­owed by the re­gion's world-renowned mu­se­ums, in­clud­ing the Clark Art In­sti­tute, the Mas­sachusetts Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art and the Nor­man Rock­well Mu­seum. "The cultural land­scape has changed dra­mat­i­cally and the Berk­shire Mu­seum has not adapted to that change," Shields said.

Sell­ing the works was not a de­ci­sion made lightly. It was a two-year process that in­volved mul­ti­ple fo­cus groups, mul­ti­ple re­treats by the board of trustees (which in­cludes a mem­ber of the Crane fam­ily) and in­put from hun­dreds of mem­bers of the com­mu­nity, Shields said. By switch­ing its fo­cus to sci­ence and history - and yes, some art will re­main - the Berk­shire Mu­seum can fill a cur­rently empty cultural niche in the re­gion. Those op­posed to the sale are in the mi­nor­ity. "We've re­ceived over­whelm­ing sup­port for this," he said. — AP

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