What does that mean for the future of American institutions?
Few families have been more important in the history of the Berkshires than the Cranes. They made their money in money: In 1799 Zenas Crane opened the first paper mill in the area. His son, Zenas Marshall Crane, developed secure paper by working silk threads into bank notes, and his son, Winthrop Murray Crane, won the right to produce all the paper for U.S. currency, a contract that the firm still holds. Winthrop was elected governor of Massachusetts in 1899; three years later, he was riding in a horse-drawn carriage in Pittsfield with President Theodore Roosevelt when a trolley crashed into them. “Governor Crane was the first to get on his feet, escaping entirely unhurt,” the wires reported. “He turned immediately to the President, helped the latter to arise.” And it was in Pittsfield that, a year later, Winthrop’s older brother, Zenas Crane Jr., founded the Berkshire Museum of Natural History and Art, as part of the Berkshire Athenaeum. He gave it pride of place at the center of town, just down the block from the Civil War Memorial in Park Square.
Zenas Jr. allocated $50,000 to construct the Italian Renaissance–style museum and $30,000 to create its collections, which today include items as disparate as a coco de mer seed, a Napoleon Bonaparte death mask, a plaster cast of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, an Atlantic porpoise skeleton, an mbira, Edison phonograph cylinders, taxidermy birds, and fragments from a Wright brothers’ airplane from Kitty Hawk. Hanging prominently in one gallery is the head of Old Bill, a beloved moose who once found his way onto Main Street in nearby Lenox, and was killed in 1920 in nearby East Otis. He is said to have escaped from the game preserve of the financier William C. Whitney, secretary of the Navy under President Grover Cleveland.
From the beginning, the museum’s holdings included artworks, many of them given by the Cranes and other prominent local families over the years. Much of the art collection, which today numbers around 2,400 works, is unremarkable—minor Old Master and 19th-century American paintings—but there are important pieces by Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Moran, and Francis Picabia. In the 1930s, the museum gave Alexander Calder his first public commission. In 1958 Norman Rockwell, recently relocated to Stockbridge, 14 miles from Pittsfield, donated his painting Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950), which is considered to be among his best.
It was a munificent neighborly gesture. At the time, the Berkshire was the nearest museum with significant art holdings and Rockwell visited often, and became friendly with the director at the time, Stuart Henry, who wrote him a note in acknowledgement of the gift, saying, “we are delighted to have it for our permanent collection.” In 1966, Rockwell followed up with another, his 1940 painting Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop. According to the Rockwell family, he also stored work at the Berkshire. He’d had a fire in his Vermont studio in 1943, and must have appreciated the safe quarters. That accounts for this anecdote in Deborah Solomon’s 2013 Rockwell biography: In 1968, when a New York art dealer approached Rockwell, eager to borrow pieces for a show, he passed the man on to Henry, after calling the director and saying, “I have a misguided art dealer here who thinks I am an artist. Humor him. Open the museum.”
Back when Zenas Jr. founded the museum, Pittsfield had a population of about 22,000, and it grew quickly for more than half a century, topping off at around 58,000 in 1960. General Electric opened a plant there in 1903, the same year the museum was inaugurated, and was one of the area’s major employers for much of the 20th century; over time, however, the company cut jobs and shuttered plants, and nothing of it remains there today. Pittsfield is still the most populous city in Berkshire County, at around 43,000 residents, but its per capita income of about $27,000 ranks near the bottom; quaint, affluent Williamstown is a 20-minute drive away, but a world apart. Downtown, a billboard encourages people to carry Naloxone, a drug that can halt opioid overdoses. Grand 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, vestiges of the Crane era, still dot the landscape, but the grand Beaux Arts Union Station, built in 1914, was torn down in 1968; a nondescript Amtrak station serves the city now.
The museum, too, has changed. When Zenas Jr. died in 1917, he left it $200,000, and in 1932, it officially became the Berkshire Museum when it broke off from the Athenaeum. The museum opened the Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation, an interactive history and science display, in 2008, following a $10 million capital campaign; Armand and Donald Feigenbaum, the home-grown brothers who devoted their careers to systems management, donated $1.2 million. Two years ago, museum leaders began conceiving a new direction, finally deciding that they would renovate the building and create new technology-intensive displays focused on science and history. This past summer, they rolled out their “New Vision.” The museum’s executive director, Van Shields, didn’t think a fund-raising campaign was the best way to finance it, given the area’s current economic climate. To shore up what he described as the museum’s precarious finances and to bankroll the new program, he announced that they would sell 40 artworks, including the two Rockwells. Sotheby’s auction house estimated that they could get upwards of $50 million for those pieces—as much as $30 million for Shuffleton’s Barbershop alone.
And that’s how the museum wound up in court.
The Berkshire Superior Court, a stately Second Empire–style building, sits just behind the Berkshire Museum. Some of the people streaming into the court on the cold morning of November 1, less than two weeks before Shuffleton’s Barbershop was to go on the block, passed within feet of it. The lawyers were easily identifiable by their suits, because the bulk of attendees were ordinary citizens, men and women in khakis and jeans, collared shirts and sweaters. They shuffled down hallways lined with framed reproductions of paintings by Mary Cassatt and Maurice Prendergast on their way to the lofty courtroom.
Rockwell’s three sons, Jarvis, Thomas, and Peter, were suing the museum to halt the sale of their father’s works. And they weren’t alone. Others had joined the case, including current and former museum members and an artist who had sold it site-specific work.
I grabbed a spot among the spectators near the center of the gallery, two rows behind the Berkshire’s acting co-directors, Nina Garlington and Craig Langlois. The previous week, Shields, who has been director for six years, had gone on medical leave, resulting in some bureaucratic reshuffling. For Garlington and Langlois, the museum’s chief engagement officer and chief experience officer, respectively, it was their second day in their new jobs. “We don’t often see a large crowd here except for a few large murder cases,” Judge John A. Agostini said by way of opening.
Michael B. Keating, a lawyer representing the Rockwell sons and some of their allies, rose from his seat. The Berkshire Museum, he said, had started talks with Sotheby’s (and its rival, Christie’s) in 2015, a full two years before it announced the sell-off; since then, over the course of more than 20 focus groups with hundreds of locals to help conceive its New Vision, it had not mentioned how they planned to fund it.
“Never once in those two years did this museum reveal to the public . . . that the price tag to get this New Vision was the sale of the core essence of their collection,” Keating argued passionately, his voice growing louder as he spoke. “That was an outrageous act on their part. It was not mere nondisclosure, it was purposeful concealment.” The museum signed a contract with Sotheby’s before making any public announcement.
If the board had been more open about its financial problems and its plans, he said, it could have found other means of support. The board’s behavior, he said, “has ripped this county apart.”
“The code of the museum trustees was one of silence,” Keating continued, referring to an email from the museum’s president, Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw, to board members, with the subject line “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” “They did not want this ship sunk,” he said.
“Why didn’t they go out and discuss this monumental decision with people like my clients or the attorney general?” Keating asked. “Because they knew there would be a pushback, they knew they didn’t want to get into a discussion, they knew that they didn’t want to face this”—he motioned around the room—“two lawsuits and an investigation by the office of the attorney general.”
The Berkshire’s New Vision reveal had started out auspiciously. When in July the museum publicized digital renderings of dramatically lit spaces filled with graphic displays and screens, and a roof crowned with a glowing glass cube reminiscent of an Apple store, the editorial board of the local paper, the Berkshire Eagle, endorsed it. Promotional materials touted the service it would provide to area schools. “We envision almost being like in Harry Potter,” Shields told a local reporter. Pressed about the loss of the paintings, he said, “If the paintings leave here, so be it. There’s a Rockwell museum right down the street.”
But the following weeks saw a divide in public opinion that widened as time passed. Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, asked for a pause to the sale, and the directors of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem criticized it. On the other hand, Joseph Thompson, the director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams, praised the New Vision as a smart way for the Berkshire to differentiate itself in an area that also includes the Williams College Museum of Art and the Clark Art Institute. The day before the hearing, the Eagle reversed course, calling the museum’s plan a “perilous gambit.”
Two weeks after the New Vision press conference, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) released a joint letter slamming the decision to sell the art. “One of the most fundamental and long-standing principles of the museum field is that a collection [be] held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset,” the letter says. It describes the possible sale as an “irredeemable loss for the present and for generations to come.” It lays out the professional guidelines: Deaccessioning is acceptable in doses if the funds go toward acquisitions. Selling work to fund operating costs “not only diminishes the core of works available to the public, it erodes the future fund-raising ability of museums nationwide.”
When Lori Fogarty, the AAMD president, heard of the Berkshire Museum’s plan, she felt sympathetic, she told me. Like the Berkshire, the museum she directs, the Oakland Museum of California, focuses on art, history, and natural science. “We’re in a community that has a lot of economic challenges as well,” she said. “We’re not in a tourist city.”
“I thought that they might not fully realize the implications of their plan,” Fogarty said. “I thought, this is a small museum. They’re not members of the AAMD, they’re not accredited, perhaps there’s some level of their board not understanding the complexity of the issues here.” She paused. “What we came to understand is that they fully knew and had thoroughly considered the implications.” They learned that the museum was working with an attorney who, for the past decade, had taken “a public advocacy stand that museums should be able to deaccession and use their collections as financial assets. That surprised me.”
That attorney is Mark S. Gold, a partner at Smith Green & Gold, a small firm in Pittsfield. Gold has published papers arguing that museum boards have wide latitude to deaccession in cases of financial trouble. The Berkshire Museum figured in his writing as early as 2009. Noting that funds from a previous sale of the museum’s work (deemed to be outside the purview of its mission) had been deposited in a fund for the collection—a move approved of by organizations like the AAMD—he argued that the money should be available for operating expenses, since the museum had been struggling. Based on court documents, he seems to have handled much of the legal work surrounding the current deaccessioning, orchestrated by director Van Shields with the support of the board.
For those opposing the Berkshire Museum’s plans, Gold is Mephistopheles to Shields’s Faust. Berkshire Eagle reporter Larry Parnass pointed out that there is a chapter in The Legal Guide for Museum Professionals (2015) written by Gold. In Chapter Nine, titled “Monetizing the Collection: The Intersection of Law, Ethics, and Trustee Prerogative,” he crystallizes the issue at the heart of the Berkshire controversy: “With some very limited exceptions in a few states, and assuming there are no donor-imposed restrictions on any particular object . . . there are no laws or regulations on a federal or state level that prohibit the sale of objects from the collection nor restrict the use of the proceeds from those sales.” A former Berkshire Museum employee told the Eagle, whose reporting on the case has been exemplary, that Shields, for his part, began talking about selling off work around the time he joined the museum in 2011. (Shields declined to comment on this at the time; I received the same response from the museum.)
After the hearing, Gold came into the Marketplace Café, where I was having lunch. I introduced myself and asked to chat; he demurred. Could I call him another time? “Probably not,” he said. (I contacted his office, and later received an email from a publicist who has been working with the museum, Carol Bosco Baumann, saying he had notified her of my request. She eventually declined to make Gold, McGraw, and the museum’s interim leaders available, writing, “Based on the recommendation of legal counsel, no one is taking interviews while there is pending litigation.” Shields was also unavailable, she said, because of his medical leave.)
What has made the Berkshire Museum case worrisome to opponents of deaccessioning is the way it underscores Gold’s point. It has exposed long-held understandings, guidelines, and norms as just that—understandings, guidelines, and norms not clearly enshrined in the law.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, began reviewing the museum’s plans in June, and two days before the November court session filed a brief saying that the commonwealth was joining the request for a halt to the sale, noting that it had “significant questions and concerns,” and needed more time for review.
In attempting to halt the sale, Healey was arguing not that the museum could never deaccession any works, but that these particular deaccessions were inappropriate based on disparate legal grounds: that an 1871 statute prevented works donated before 1932 from ever being sold, that Henry’s letter to Rockwell indicated that the artist intended for his gift to be permanent, and that the Berkshire Museum was breaking with its charter to such a degree that it required the approval of a court. The attorney general’s office argued that the museum’s board had not exercised good judgment in violating the guidelines of the AAM and AAMD, steps that also required it to cease its involvement in a partnership with the Smithsonian. Because those groups would sanction the museum and because the sales would undermine the trust of donors, the museum would be unable to fulfill its mandated mission, the AGO argued.
It felt a bit like a throw-everything-at-the-wall strategy, and Judge Agostini seemed disinclined to believe any of it stuck.
Which is perhaps why the museum’s attorney, William F. Lee, could afford to have such an unassuming affect in court. “Honestly, your honor, I don’t think that loud voices or character assassination are going to resolve the issues before you,” he said calmly. Lee called accusations that the museum had acted improperly a “conspiracy theory.” The board may have acted in ways that infuriated museum professionals, but it hadn’t actually done anything improper or illegal; it was acting to save the museum from financial ruin.
“The only thing that people are doing now is Monday-morning quarterbacking a two-year process to say, You might have done some things different, ” Lee said. “But our legal system doesn’t allow for that.”
Throughout the months leading up to legal action, a local group, Save the Art–Save the Museum, had been publicly protesting the Berkshire sale. I went to see them on a Saturday morning in September. On my way, I stopped at the museum. A few dozen visitors were there—in the basement, families were enjoying the aquariums. On the second floor, an elderly couple from Connecticut were on the hunt for the Rockwells. A guard informed them that they had already been sent to Sotheby’s. The Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation, which has sections about the Crane family and other prominent locals, was empty. A wall display read, “How do you define success?”
One gallery, dubbed the “Curiosity Incubator,” was painted a rich orange, and had been held out by the museum as a model for what it hopes to accomplish with its New Vision. It was filled with a motley selection of paintings and specimens. I strapped on a VR headset funded by Becky and Doug Crane (Doug, a board member, is the great-great-nephew of the museum’s founder), and was transported into dining rooms of different homes, so that I could experience a variety of cultural traditions.
Walking outside, past a life-size model of a stegosaurus standing sentry on the museum’s lawn, I headed down the block to the edge of Park Square, where Save the Art members held posters bearing images of works by Rockwell, Bierstadt, and others, printed with the letters “NFS”—not for sale. Hope Davis, an art teacher and adviser who has a house in nearby Great Barrington, was among a group of women wearing mourning veils. I asked her how it was going, and she gestured toward passing cars. “Well, we’re getting a lot of honks!” she said.
“The art collection is at the very heart of the institution,” Davis told her fellow protesters through a megaphone. “It is Pittsfield’s history, a legacy that we all own.”
When Carol Diehl, a writer and artist, held the megaphone, she reminded her audience that, days earlier, an anonymous group had reportedly sought to pause the sale of the artworks for further study by donating a million dollars to the museum. (The idea was ultimately rejected.) “Having achieved national notoriety, how much support [could] the museum . . . gain from outside the area if it were to publicly re-commit to including great art in its vision?” she asked.
Linda Cleary, another area resident, made an emotional appeal. “My conscience and my soul compel me to be here, and if I cry, I hope you’ll forgive me,” she said. The artworks “belong on display in the Berkshire Museum, not on the living room wall of an oligarch’s private mansion.”
Standing on a nearby traffic median strip was a lone counter-protester, Catherine B. Deely, a retired businesswoman who served for ten years on the board of the Norman Rockwell Museum. She held a sign that read “SELL SOME ART = SAVE OUR MUSEUM.” “I’m afraid that people don’t really understand what the fund-raising capacity is here,” she told me. “Nobody likes selling the art, but this is the way to create financial stability.”
Deely had published an op-ed in the Eagle supporting the sale and citing statistics from the 2012 update on The State of Non-Profits in Berkshire County published by the Center for Creative Community Development at Williams College: “The number of non-profits per resident is higher in Berkshire County than [in] Massachusetts; it is more than double that of the U.S. In 2008 there were 27.0 non-profits in Berkshire County per 10,000 population, compared to 17.1 in Massachusetts and 11.7 in the U.S. Of the public charities (excluding Tanglewood and Bard College at Simon’s Rock), 74 were ‘culturals’.” Further, “over the past 12 years, the non-profit sector has seen a 54 percent increase in the number of organizations in Berkshire County,” and “in 2008, there were 2.0 times as many arts and cultural non-profits in Berkshire County as in 1996.”
In other words, in the Berkshires, the competition has become too fierce. There is, as she put it, “donor drought.”
A few days before the September protest, Christopher Knight, the art critic for the Los Angeles Times, had written a column lambasting the museum’s sell-off as irresponsible. He added that he had grown up about an hour from Pittsfield “and was never much enamored of the place.” To Deely, Knight’s take was “arrogant. It was very one-sided. We don’t live in New York or Detroit. This is a very small community. People are very visibly putting out their opinions, and friendships are being torn apart.”
The deaccessioning question cuts to core issues about the public trust and nonprofit stewardship. “There’s a fundamental misunderstanding, or I would even say differing cultural approaches,” said Sean O’Harrow, a former director of the University of Iowa Art Museum who now runs the Honolulu Museum of Art. “There are some people who believe that everything is for sale. And I am, for one, a person who believes that there are things more valuable than money. Even your grandmother has a value, but you probably wouldn’t sell her. . . . Ultimately, there have to be values. There is such a thing as cultural and historical integrity.”
During his time in Iowa City, O’Harrow, like his predecessors, had to fend off calls by state legislators to sell the museum’s storied Jackson Pollock Mural (1943), donated by Peggy Guggenheim. The work could easily sell in the nine figures, so, O’Harrow said, “it comes up on the radar, particularly for legislators, you know, who can see a cash cow.”
When he spoke to politicians, O’Harrow said, he emphasized the promises that had been made to Guggenheim. “We don’t go back on our word.” In more practical terms, he said, “why take your biggest donors, abuse them in public, and think that that’s going to help you? It can help you in the short term, but it’s not going to give you a future.”
It isn’t unheard-of for museums to sell off work to make ends meet and tolerate censure from professional organizations, but it has typically been done in only the most dire circumstances. In 2008 the National Academy Museum in New York City sold two paintings—an 1854 Frederic Edwin Church and an 1859 Sanford Robinson Gifford—for around $15 million, which it used to cover expenses that might otherwise have led to the institution’s going bankrupt. In 2014 the Delaware Museum of Art in Wilmington, then staring down a nearly $20 million loan that was coming due from an expansion a decade earlier, sold four works, by Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Alexander Calder, and William Holman Hunt. The Hunt brought an unexpectedly low $4.25 million at Christie’s in London, and the museum ended up having to dip into its endowment to cover the debt.
In the case of the Berkshire Museum, there are differing opinions on how extreme its financial situation is. The financial writer Felix Salmon, a vigorous opponent of the deaccessioning plan, has looked at the museum’s numbers and argued that it is not facing “an existential risk.” The Massachusetts Attorney General is reportedly examining its fiscal health. The museum says it has run substantial deficits in recent years, and needs $40 million to correct its finances long-term. Should Shuffleton’s Barbershop make the expected $30 million, that alone would more than triple the museum’s endowment, which now stands at $7.45 million, according to Baumann, the museum’s spokesperson. Some outside experts have suggested that an infusion of anywhere from $4.6 million to $10 million would keep the museum afloat in the way it currently operates, but that is not what the museum wants. It wants to expand and reimagine its activities. As a tech entrepreneur might say, it wants to pivot.
At a time when tax cuts and funding cutbacks are the orders of the day, the fear in the museum community is that a successful sell-off at a place like the Berkshire could cause other institutions, particularly regional and local museums in under-resourced areas, to decide that selling works in their collection represents a feasible solution.
“For those of us who spend our lifetime doing this, it’s really upsetting,” said Gretchen Dietrich, executive director of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City.
The UMFA has an annual operating budget of $3.7 million, comprising funds from the government, endowment earnings, and fund-raising, and while there is money earmarked for acquisitions, donors are essential for obtaining work that, Dietrich said, “otherwise we would never have the capacity to raise the funds to buy.” She tells donors, “It’s like a marriage—it’s a long-term commitment. I’m going to care for this object, I’m going to research this object, if it needs conservation, I’m going to find the money to pay for that in perpetuity, for our community. That’s what donors want.”
But what happens when an area’s philanthropic base disappears? As a letter writer in the Eagle put it, “The donor base in Berkshire County has eroded. General Electric is no more. Sprague Electric is now the home of Mass MoCA. Other companies no longer with us include Byron Weston, Clark-Aiken, SABIC, Kimberly-Clark/Schweitzer-Mauduit. Just drive down along the Housatonic River and see all the empty old mills.”
“Most of the regional museums with collections of consequence are built on manufacturing wealth and that manufacturing wealth has melted away,” said Matthias Waschek, director of the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) in Massachusetts, established in 1898.
Waschek supports the AAMD and AAM statement condemning the Berkshire Museum’s plans, but wonders if professional organizations could do more to help beleaguered institutions. “We should not just say, Thou shalt not. Thou be damned. We have all the money. Thou doesn’t. But thou be damned anyway,” he said. “There’s a certain self-righteousness.”
“I think we have to do away with this idea of museums as silos,” Waschek continued. “We should partner, we should merge.” In 2012 the board of the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester voted to close for lack of funding and to integrate its collection of arms and armor and its endowment with WAM’s. In 2015 Waschek persuaded the long-serving former Museum of Fine Arts, Boston director, Malcolm Rogers, to join WAM’s board, with the aim of encouraging people from beyond the Worcester area to support the museum. Philanthropists in Massachusetts have tended to concentrate their money in the Boston area, to the detriment of museums elsewhere in the state. “It’s absurd, because this is one of the wealthiest states in this country,” Waschek said.
The waning of donations in recent years has been attributed to the death of the generation of funders that came after the great industrialists, as well as the twilight of the baby boomers, who, as Honolulu Museum director O’Harrow put it, were “raised on museums.” Museums need to appeal to and embrace more diverse audiences, but that takes time, and in the meantime, many are in a crunch.
The Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York, is still able to add to its collection, based on acquisition funds endowed by an earlier generation of patrons. According to the museum’s director, Jonathan Binstock, Rochester “was one of America’s first boomtowns. It was the original Silicon Valley—with Kodak and Bausch & Lomb and Xerox, Western Union.” But Binstock has to fund-raise aggressively for exhibitions and programs “that we think are important to deliver to this community and to contribute more broadly to the world of our museums. In that regard, I definitely feel the pinch, if you will, that most institutions in regional locations whose economies are not growing robustly would feel.” On the operations side, he keeps things “lean, lean, lean, lean, lean.”
When an unexpected donor steps forward for a regional museum, it’s big news. In Buffalo, New York, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (a Gilded Age–era museum, established in 1905) got a windfall in September 2016 when the bond investor Jeffrey Gundlach committed $42.5 million as a challenge grant to its expansion and capital campaign that now aims to raise $125 million. “Luck and lady fortune have a role to play,” the museum’s director, Janne Sirén, said. “I could never have anticipated that more or less out of the blue Jeffrey Gundlach engages me in a series of conversations.”
When the Albright-Knox last expanded, in 1962, with Gordon Bunshaft as architect, Buffalo’s population stood at about 530,000 and was already in decline. As of last year, it was less than half that, around 256,000. But Gundlach had grown up in the area and had fond memories of the Albright-Knox (which will be renamed the Buffalo Albright-Knox-Gundlach Art Museum). Sirén emphasized that the museum had long been involved in public art and in reaching out to the community for advice on its expansion plans. “It was a convergence of energies,” he said. They were “really putting the message out there. We’re doing this together and we’re doing this for you. It’s not like we were silently waiting for a golden egg to fall into our lap.”
Ten years ago, it was the Albright-Knox that was being criticized for deaccessioning, as it sold off its holdings of antiquities to raise money for its acquisition endowment, a move squarely within the AAMD’s ethical guidelines. Local citizens protested the move and filed a lawsuit, which was rejected in court. The museum raised nearly $70 million. Sirén, who became director after that process was completed, praised the move, saying, “the act of deaccessioning fortified our identity as an institution of modern and contemporary art.”
Seven pieces from the Berkshire Museum went on view at Sotheby’s Manhattan headquarters, an imposing glass and granite building on York Avenue, while Judge Agostini was still considering his opinion. On Tuesday, November 7, he ruled against the attorney general and other plaintiffs, saying that the board had acted properly. No actual laws prevented them from making the tough choices they had made. On Friday, Attorney General Healey filed an appeal with Massachusetts Appeals Court, which approved a one-month injunction so that the investigation could be completedfe. Three days before the auction was to have occurred, the sale was off—at least for a month, while the injunction was in place.
Lee, the museum’s lawyer, was quick to react. He accused Healey of “placing the special interests of a portion of the well-funded arts community over people, especially young people, really in need.” McGraw had an op-ed in the Eagle calling the injunction “a setback for our members, our neighbors, and all the citizens of Berkshire County.”
By the time Sotheby’s opened up on Saturday for its final public auction previews, the house had swept the Berkshire works off its walls and website. Save the Art’s planned protest for in front of Sotheby’s went forward that morning, and about a dozen people were on hand holding signs and talking to the press. Tom Andolora, a New York City resident, held a sign that said, “Norman Rockwell Not for Sale.” The Prendergast Library in Jamestown, New York, where Andolora grew up, had recently begun to sell off its collection of American and European art. “We went through the same thing,” he said. “The board two years ago got into financial problems and decided they were selling the whole thing.” Some of the work was hanging inside Sotheby’s, and the New York attorney general’s office had signed off on that sale. “We are a smaller town and we didn’t have the money or the people to fight it,” he said.
Hope Davis, from Save the Art, was in high spirits. “Cautious joy, that is my reaction,” she said of the appeals ruling. But she noted that the fight has been very divisive. “How do we make something positive out of this?” she asked me. “I’m hoping we get some legislation in place, some protections, but also, people really need to understand the value of regional museums. I think they are vastly undervalued.” The huge donations that typically go only to large museums could profoundly help them, she said.
For the Berkshire Museum, the prospect of a lengthy court battle loomed. Closest to Davis’s heart was a simple wish: “We just hope the Rockwells come home.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 90 under the title “Vision Quest.”