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Mass. High Court Approves Controversial Berkshire Museum Artwork Sale

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass.
Berkshire Museum
Creative Commons
The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass.

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, received approval from state's highest court Thursday for an agreement allowing it to sell up to 40 artworks. The decision clears the way for a contentious sale that will include some pieces by Norman Rockwell.

Elizabeth McGraw, chairman of the museum's board of trustees, said the decision is "great news."

"We recognize this decision may not please those who have opposed the museum’s plans," McGraw said in a statement. "Still, we hope people will be able to move forward in a constructive way to help us secure and strengthen the future of this museum, at a time when our community needs it more than ever."

McGraw also said some of the art up for sale may end up remaining at the museum.

"We’re very hopeful that not all of the artwork needs to be sold, at this point and juncture, given the agreement that we came to with the Attorney General," she said.

Nicholas O'Donnell, a lawyer representing museum members who oppose the sale, said the decision marks a sad day for Massachusetts. His statement is below:

My clients are disappointed in the Single Justice ruling but remain grateful for the opportunity to address the Court with their views. The decision makes it more clear than ever that the Office of the Attorney General’s abrupt and unexplained about-face less than three weeks after forcefully and accurately denouncing the Trustees’ fiduciary lapses played an overwhelming role in the outcome. It is a sad day both for the people of Massachusetts and the true custodians, working tirelessly to preserve and protect our local and national heritage, throughout America.

Berkshire Museum officials have said selling the art is a complicated decision, but in the end the sale is about survival of the museum.

Ethan Klepetar, vice president of the museum's board, said it was the most ethical thing to do, to stay true to the museum's mission.

"We've got problems with mold... with weeping walls," he said. "We've got drip from our ceiling that leads to icicles forming on the floor in certain rooms. So we're going to take the steps to fix that. And frankly, we haven't been able to do that in decades, because we simply didn't have enough money."

The museum's plans have drawn criticism from members of Norman Rockwell's family.

The American Alliance of Museums, an organization representing the entire scope of the museum community, and the Association of Art Museum Directors, an organization representing 243 directors of leading art museums in the U.S., were deeply opposed to the Berkshire Museum’s plans to sell the works from its collection. 

Adam Frenier contributed reporting.

Jill has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing The Connection with Christopher Lydon, Morning Edition, reporting and hosting. In the months leading up to the 2000 presidential primary in New Hampshire, Jill hosted NHPR’s daily talk show The Exchange. Right before coming to NEPM, Jill was an editor at PRX's The World.
Heather Brandon began at NEPM in 2017 as Digital News Editor. She served as the news department's Managing Editor during the coronavirus pandemic.
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