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Berkshire Museum Faces Uproar over Sale of Artworks from Collection

Two paintings by Norman Rockwell—Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop, 1940, and Shuffleton Barbershop, 1950—are among a group of forty artworks lined up to be sold at auction from the collection of the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The proceeds from the sales will be used to fund the Berkshire’s $20 million renovation and $40 million endowment, report Helen Stoilas and Gabriella Angeleti of the Art Newspaper. Some say the venue, which belongs to the American Alliance of Museums, is violating the coalition’s code of ethics, as sales of this kind are typically done to support the purchase of other artworks for an institution’s permanent collection.

Laurie Norton Moffatt, the director and chief executive of the Norman Rockwell Museum—within close proximity to the Berkshire Museum—wrote in a recent op-ed for the Berkshire Eagle: “To think that selling the art will save the future is simply to push the challenge down the road while diminishing the strength of the institution. Disassembling the unique treasure that is our regional museum to save it, is not saving it. Selling these treasured assets actually poses a debilitating economic ripple effect beyond the museum, not to mention would be a profound spiritual loss to the community.” Museums that have engaged in similar types of deaccessioning in order to stabilize finances have been blackballed by peers. When the National Academy in New York sold a pair of Hudson River School pieces to cover its operating expenses in 2008, the Association of Art Museum Directors issued a censure of the institution—a first for the organization—telling all 180 of its members to stop collaborating with the academy. In 2010, sanctions against the academy were removed, when it confirmed its financial solvency and said it would no longer sell off artworks to make ends meet.

The works from the Berkshire—which are going to be sold through Sotheby’s, New York, either late this year or in early 2018—are expected to bring at least $50 million.