Art auc­tion trig­gers dis­pute about ethics

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Mark Pratt Ben Garver, The Berk­shire Ea­gle

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.

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