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Mass. Cultural Council Condemns Berkshire Museum's Planned Art Sale

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Berkshire Museum
Creative Commons
The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts as seen in 2013.

The Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) is joining the outcry against the Berkshire Museum's decision to sell 40 works of art from its collection and is putting a hold on the institution's upcoming grant.

In July, the Western Massachusetts museum announced its intention to sell the artwork, including two Norman Rockwell pieces the artist gave to the institution. (Rockwell's family has come out against the planned sale.) The 114-year-old museum hopes to raise $60 million to carry out a "reinvention plan" that includes shoring up an endowment and redesigning its building.

The MCC — a state agency that funds nonprofits — conducted a financial review that finds the museum could survive without auctioning the art.

"I don't think it's any more fragile than a lot of our nonprofit and cultural organizations that are struggling with the same challenges the Berkshire Museum is facing," says MCC executive director Anita Walker.

But the museum is defending its plan. As first reported by the Berkshire Eagle, the museum's board said in a statement Wednesday "the Massachusetts Cultural Council's decision to not support the Museum ... is deeply disappointing, and betrays its stated objective of helping organizations grow and change."

While the planned sale is under review in the state Attorney General's office, the MCC is holding the museum’s operating support grant pending for the fiscal year 2018, Walker says. Over the past 10 years, the MCC estimates they have supported the Berkshire Museum with more than $1.2 million in direct and indirect grants.

Since nonprofit museums are exempt from property and corporate taxes, the MCC says they have "a special responsibility" to preserve the state's culture. Walker says the sale goes against best practices in the museum field and violates the public trust.

In addition, she says it would be a tragedy if this sale set a precedent: "Because we will be the place where the erosion of the stewardship of our unique and treasured history and art will begin. We don’t want to be that state."

The council is urging the museum to halt the art sale scheduled to begin at Sotheby's auction house in November. It is also offering to help the Berkshire Museum explore alternatives.

This report was originally published by WBUR.

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