The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, recently announced a plan — two years in the making — to reinvent itself, with a focus on science and history. The plan also calls for a $60 million campaign that includes $20 million for facility renovations and $40 million to bolster its endowment. The decision to sell off pieces from its collection to pay for the plan, however, has resulted in opposition from the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors.
In July, the museum rolled out its "reinvention plan," which calls for actions to "properly capitalize the institution," including deaccessioning forty works from its collection of approximately forty thousand objects. The museum anticipates proceeds from the sale of the works — Impressionist, Modern, contemporary, American, nineteenth-century European, Chinese, and Old Master paintings — will total upward of $50 million. Among the works are paintings by Norman Rockwell, who lived his final twenty-five years in Berkshire County and gave the paintings "to the people of Pittsfield."
"Actions such as those being proposed by the Berkshire Museum undermine the public's trust in the mission of nonprofit museums — and museums' ability to collect, teach, study, and preserve works for their communities now and into the future," AAM and AAMD argued in a joint statement. "Selling from the collection for purposes such as capital projects or operating funds not only diminishes the core of works available to the public, it erodes the future fundraising ability of museums nationwide."
If the museum goes through with the sale, recent history suggests there could be consequences, NPR reports. In 2014, the Delaware Art Museum sold a painting from its collection to pay off a debt; AAMD reacted with a number of punitive measures, including asking other institutions not to loan works or collaborate with the museum.
In defending its decision, the Berkshire Museum has pointed to its "thoughtful and thorough" efforts to communicate with the local community, which include engaging more than four hundred people during the research and planning phase, as evidence that the community is supportive of the move.
"We can’t care for our collection if we don't exist," Van Shields, executive director of the museum, told the New York Times. "The fact is, we are facing an existential threat, and the board chose the interests of this institution over the interests of these national professional organizations."