Art auction triggers dispute about ethics
BOSTON» A Massachusetts 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, 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 the Rockwell oil paintings have stirred the deepest emotions.