Two wonderful museums recently announced plans to sell major works of art. In one case, some 40 paintings, American masterpieces among them, will be sold at auction. In another, more than 400 photographs will also be sold. The former case has prompted a nationwide outcry, the latter…effectively nothing. The differences and similarities between the two underscore the aspirational rules that govern what is known as “deaccessioning,” but also remind us that principles and the goals they are meant to reach are not always the same thing.
The first museum referenced above is the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The Berkshire Museum was founded in 1903 by Zenas Crane, a paper manufacturer (whose company still supplies paper to the U.S. Treasury). As the museum’s website puts it, “Crane purchased many of Berkshire Museum’s first acquisitions, including a sizable group of paintings from the revered Hudson River School. Significant works by Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church figure prominently in the collection.” But the museum is not merely an art gallery, it also hosts archeologic, scientific, and historical artifacts. It is, in the classic sense, conceived as an encyclopedic museum like the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Pittsfield is a wonderful place, a town of about 45,000 people, but which in its manufacturing heyday had even more. After the decline of the once-dominant wool industry, Pittsfield came to be supported by key defense contractor work by General Electric and later General Dynamics. When the Cold War ended, it was a point of pride among some to learn that Pittsfield had been high on the list of Soviet military targets because GE manufactured ICBM guidance systems there (ironically, one of the reasons the Clark Art Institute ended up in Williamstown rather than New York was Clark’s fear of an atomic bomb attack on New York). It may even be where baseball was invented (still-standing 1892 Waconah Park unusually faces west and play has to be stopped briefly every night for the sun to move out of the batter’s eyes), and this writer spend four happy years rowing every day on the waters of gusty Lake Onota.
With those days long gone, Pittsfield occupies a challenging position Berkshire County, roughly equidistance between the affluent cultural poles of Williamstown and Lenox, but without the Mass MoCA-fueld resurgence that has so greatly benefitted another one-company town fallen on hard times, North Adams.
So in once sense it did not seem surprising when the Berkshire Museum announced in July that financial difficulties had forced it to make hard decisions. In a press release the museum stated its plan to create an endowment by “deaccession[ing] 40 works of art from the Museum’s extensive collection numbering approximately 40,000 objects.” Among the proposed sale objects are master works by Norman Rockwell, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt and Alexander Calder.
The second museum addressed here is the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which surely needs no introduction and which has claimed no financial distress behind its decision. Earlier this month MoMA announced that it planned to sell at Christie’s more than 400 photographs from its permanent collection, expected to realize $3.6 million to fund new acquisitions of art for the museum.
The museum community’s reaction could not be more different. As readers will recall, the prevailing view among museum associations—principally the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums—is that deaccessioning is forbidden unless the proceeds are used to buy more art. The AAMD enforces this principle rigorously, sanctioning member institutions and non-member institutions like from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to the Delaware Museum of Art. Notwithstanding the Berkshire Museum’s protestations that its “new” mission makes these works inconsistent, this is too cute by half. By contrast, MoMA has proactively made clear that the photography sale proceeds will go into an acquisitions fund.
Perhaps more importantly, people in the Pittsfield community are aghast that these masterpieces of American painting will be removed from their midst. Some, like Felix Salmon and Lee Rosenbaum have done detailed review of available financial records (which as a rule do not treat paintings like capital assets on the institution’s balance sheet) to point out that there is no obvious sign of existential financial duress. Even without the AAMD opprobrium, the deaccessioning decision is shortsighted because it breaks faith so badly with the community. No endowment can substitute for the healthy engagement with the surrounding community, and an area as economically diverse as Berkshire County understandably feels betrayed.
So we have vocal objection from the AAMD in one instance, and no objection in the other. Why? It is not enough to say one has followed the rules, one has not. What matters is why those rules are rules, and here the inquiry gets a little more uncomfortable. The loss of Rockwells and Bierstadts from public view is irreparable. Once auctioned, they may go to another museum, they may not. Part of the policy behind deaccessioning policy is the slippery concept of the “public trust,” that museums owe a higher obligation to display what they hold. Yet MoMA’s sale has exactly the same effect in practice, perhaps even more so. Individual photographs of that quality will be snapped up by buyers across the world. There is no guarantee nor even any suggestion that they will end up in public display elsewhere. Other art may end up on display, but not this art. MoMA can afford to segregate its sale proceeds, the Berkshire Museum says it cannot. For the laudable goal of keeping fine art accessible to the public however, the current rules fall short.