Days after representatives for the Berkshire Museum and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office announced a tentative agreement that could allow the museum to sell a prized Norman Rockwell painting and 39 other works from its collection, a group of current and former museum members said they would continue their fight—initiated with a lawsuit originally filed in October—to stop the sale. “This agreement effectively allows the museum to do what it always wanted to do,” Nicholas M. O’Donnell, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said by today by phone. “My clients are stunned at the complete reversal by the Attorney General’s office in barely two weeks,” he added in a statement, in reference to an earlier AGO filing that suggested the museum’s “failure to select the less harmful, reasonably practicable, alternative mode of action” could be a breach of fiduciary duty.
The plaintiffs in the suit against the museum—James Hatt, Kristin Hatt, and Elizabeth Weinberg—first brought their case accusing the institution’s board of mismanagement after the announcement of a proposal to sell off 40 paintings, including coveted works by Rockwell, to raise funds. Their suit takes the novel approach of arguing that the Berkshire Museum’s board violated its contract with members, who thus have the right to suit. That argument was greeted skeptically by a judge in Berkshire County Superior Court in early November, who denied the group’s request for preliminary injunction halting the sale. Their appeal to that ruling is pending.
The leadership of the museum has said that, because of budget deficits, it will be forced to close in eight years if it does not receive a cash infusion. The proposed agreement reached last Friday would allow the sale of Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950) for an undisclosed sum to a public institution plus other works to be sold through Sotheby’s that together could total more than $50 million. That deal must still be approved by the Supreme Judicial Court, which has stated it agrees with the AGO that financial hardship allows for sales that would otherwise be restricted in accordance with the rights of donors, statutes, and other reasons.
Citing the claim that the institution is financially beleaguered, O’Donnell also questioned why the museum “chose not to require any change in the governance or management of the institution by the board that will now be entrusted with a $50 million windfall.”
Emily Snyder, spokeswoman for the AGO, said, “We undertook an extensive and careful investigation into the proposed sale of art by the Berkshire Museum. This agreement adheres to Massachusetts charities law, ensures the survival of the Berkshire Museum, and preserves Shuffleton’s Barbershop for public view.”
A representative for the museum did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The first group of plaintiffs to file suit to halt the sell-off—which included the three sons of Norman Rockwell and others—has not yet said if they too will fight the proposed deal.
Update, 9:45 p.m.: A comment from the AGO was added.