Mu­seum’s auc­tion of art pieces sparks in­tense ethics de­bate

Crit­ics: Don’t sell ob­jects sim­ply to pay the bills

Woonsocket Call - - Region/obituaries -

BOS­TON (AP) — 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 long­stand­ing 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.

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 U.S. 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.

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