Report To Mass. AG Tallies Up Berkshire Museum Art Sale

Dec 9, 2019

A recent report from the Berkshire Museum’s attorneys to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office outlines how the museum is using money from its controversial art sale.

The auctions, announced as part of a "reinvention" plan in 2017, included some paintings by Norman Rockwell. Critics of the sale sued, but the museum struck a deal with the AG’s office. Eventually, 22 pieces were sold at auction.

The Berkshire Eagle obtained the report about the Pittsfield museum’s plans for the money. Investigations editor Larry Parnass said the art sale missed its goal of $55 million.

Larry Parnass, The Berkshire Eagle: And they attributed that in part to the legal challenges which cancelled the initial auction plans, which had been heavily, heavily marketed. Now I think it's quite possible that the publicity and the notoriety that this art sale engendered dissuaded some people from bidding.

Adam Frenier, NEPR: They sold about $53.2 million worth of art. That was 22 pieces that they sold. What have they done with the money, now that they have the proceeds in?

I just want to first say quickly that that was their net proceeds, and there were other costs that came off the top of that. But they've used the money, primarily — $45 million of it — to invest in a fund that is going to kick off earnings.

They're hoping to pull no more than three-and-a-quarter percent a year from that investment.

And that's designed to plug the deficit that had been recurring and growing in an era of declining donations generally to nonprofits and kind of hard times in that sector. The rest of it is going to be used for two things. One is for capital projects. And another portion as required by the agreement reached between the museum and the attorney general can only be used for the good of the collection. That's about $3 million.

A lot was made of the condition of the building, and I know they updated the attorney general's office about that. What were they able to tell Maura Healey's office?

Well, they had said in the course of the litigation that they were struggling with building problems, including water invading the building, and threats to the collection, and ice collecting and icicles. Part of that seemed to be part of the legal case, and not necessarily totally true. But they are now proceeding to do work on a sewer line — not too sexy — fixing their loading dock, and then waterproofing the outside of the building to protect the collection.

Absent from any capital building plan right now is a major remodeling, which had been a key feature when this was rolled out two years and a couple of months ago — a big atrium that would have just renovated and reimagined the center of the museum. And that is just dead in the water right now. They're going to do some work on that space. It's called the Crane Room.

But the reimagining of the museum itself that Van Shields, the former director, had unveiled at the time this first reached the public — that is off the table.

You look at the fundraising department, 2018 was a pretty good year for the Berkshire Museum in terms of raising money, aside from selling art. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

They report that they took in well over a million in donations. They refer to them as one-time donations. And they say they were largely from people who wanted to support this concept of being more interdisciplinary, and trying to use items from the collection that aren't fine arts objects to help tell stories, which sounds very interesting. And we'll see where that goes.

The current fund appeal for general operations expenses is hoping to pull in about $100,000. That's well less than a tenth of what came in in 2018. They're on a calendar year now for their fiscal year. So the current fundraising campaign is really kind of an afterthought, at least as the accountants might see it.