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Berkshire Museum Completes Controversial, Contested Art Sales, Netting $53.3 M.

Inside the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, last year.

ANDREW RUSSETH/ARTNEWS

Nearly a year and a half after it announced plans to part with 40 artworks from its collection in order to close a budget gap, pay for building repairs and renovations, and pursue a new programming agenda, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, said today that it has completed the sales, bringing in $53.25 million for 22 works.

The sell-off, a highly unusual course of action for a nonprofit institution, generated heated court battles, numerous protests, and a vigorous debate that spread from the op-ed sections of newspapers in the Berkshire region to outlets throughout the United States.

Among the works sold by the Berkshire Museum were two key Norman Rockwell paintings that had been donated to it by the artist himself, including Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950). That painting was purchased for an undisclosed sum by the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which is set to open in Los Angeles in 2022.

The leadership of the Berkshire Museum had argued that deaccessioning the works—by Francis Picabia, Albert Bierstadt, Alexander Calder, and others—was necessary because it had a structural budget deficit that could eventually force it to close and an inability to raise necessary funds in the region. Opponents of the plan charged that the museum was overstating its financial strains and betraying its commitments to donors and its community.

The ensuing legal melee culminated in a hearing before Massachusetts’s top court, in which the state’s attorney general and museum officials came to an agreement whereby some 40 works could be offered for sale, with the aim of raising up to $55 million. That plan was approved.

In a news release, the museum, which has been sanctioned by major industry organizations for monetizing its collection, said that, in the spring of next year, it would begin making capital improvements on waterproofing features, its loading dock, and sewer lines. Plans for redesigning part of the building have been shelved.

“We are moving forward having secured the future of this museum for generations to come,” Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw, the president of the Berkshire Museum’s board, said in a statement. “Our work ahead is focused on making this museum ever more interesting, inspiring, and engaging to the broad community in the region it serves and consistent with our unchanged mission.”

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