Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Norman Rockwells on the Block?

On November 1, Judge John Agostini  of the  Berkshire Superior Court surveyed his packed courtroom in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and quipped that  “it usually takes a murder case to equal such a turnout.”  What brought so many citizens, lawyers and the press together? :  Art.

The art in question are 40 works by the likes of Alexander Calder, Augustus Saint-Gaudens , Albert Bierstadt and central  to this case, Norman Rockwell, that the Pittsfield-based  Berkshire Museum  last July announced it intended to deaccession and put on the auction block. The estimate of proceeds is $50 million to be used to fund an endowment, deal with chronic financial shortfalls and to renovate the museum to suit its “new vision” mission  emphasizing  interactive displays of  science and natural history.  The museum has claimed the art works up for sale were “not essential to the museum’s refreshed mission.”

Facing $ 1 million annual deficits, the museum trustees undertook a two year study evaluating its purpose with a view to attracting larger audiences and support.  Founded in 1903 the museum was intended by its founder paper magnate Zenas Crane to educate the public with art, scientific and history displays, as a “window on the world.”
Two lawsuits, one by three of Norman Rockwell’s sons, have been filed to block the sale. Rockwell lived and worked in nearby Stockbridge (where a popular museum dedicated to his work now exists). He personally donated the two paintings to the Berkshire Museum in 1958 and 1966. They are expected to fetch over $30 million in a sale scheduled at Sotheby’s on November 13. The Rockwell sons stated their father did not intend the paintings to be sold as a commodity to reduce deficits but rather held  for the pleasure and education of the public in the Berkshires. Norman Rockwell had a long association with the museum; it was the first museum to exhibit his work.
The Rockwell paintings have given the case an emotional edge not often seen in deaccessioning battles, fueled by the participation of his sons and public desire to keep close to home famous work by one of the region’s native sons.  Recently the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General, which oversees charities in the state, entered the fray.  At the November 1 court hearing it sought an emergency motion to halt the art sale. Its brief made a strong case that the court should ultimately decide whether the museum has the right to sell the art.  Local and national media have been covering the issue.
The issues raised range from museum ethics to the role of trustees in their fiduciary/public trust roles.
Museum ethics, as defined by two national organizations, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), state clearly that proceeds of sale of work  from a collection must only be used to fund future acquisitions, not for debt reduction or other operational uses. It is believed this sale would be the largest ever used for such unethical purposes.  Besides public censure, the only teeth the AAMD  has is to recommend  that member institutions not make loans to the museum. That even may be weakened as the Berkshire Museum seems to be disposing of its art –related mission.
The question before Judge Agostini is whether the plaintiffs (the suits are now consolidated into one, along with the Attorney General)  have the right to challenge the trustees’ action. Do they have “standing” in legal terms.  If he rules they do not, then in all likelihood the November 13 sale will go forward. If he rules in the affirmative, the legal battles should only heat up. Sotheby’s is already exhibiting in New York the major Rockwell painting “Shuffleton’s Barber Shop,” which the house estimates will draw bids between $20  and $30 million.
“Trustees” are so named because they are charged with managing a museum and its collection, which is held in public trust.  There seems little doubt these trustees are facing a difficult future. They have invested in consultants, a lengthy public input process and arrived at what is clearly a transformative solution. But at what cost? The public would lose access to great art, acquired largely by the museum from donors who presumably, if they knew the works were to  be cashed in, might have had second thoughts about their generosity.
What is particularly troubling is the magnitude of the transactions. The Attorney General questioned if the amount was really keyed to the museum needs or just simply matched the amount Sotheby’s estimated the art would fetch at auction. There is an aura of commodity trading about the whole business.
I hope the judge will grant the restraining order in order to give time for the Attorney General to complete her investigation and the court to adjudicate the entire matter absent the pressure of an impending sale. If the sale goes forward on November 13, the Rockwells and other fine works  disappear from public view. And after the sale, there is no going back.
The judge’s decision is imminent.  I will post it.
What do you think?


Just a few hours after I posted this on my webpage November 7, Judge Agostini announced his ruling - in favor of the museum. In a 25 page decision, he stated the plaintiffs failed to make the case to halt the sale. He wrote "it was the court's duty to act dispassionately and decide cases solely on the legal merits."  He conceded his finding means "timeless works by an iconic, local artist will be lost to the public in less than a week's time."

He added" "the rights of a charitable board to make thoughtful decisions to steer its charity through troubled times have been vindicated."

I would add: there's a lot more steering ahead.

The sale will proceed November 13 at Sotheby's.


Friday evening November 9:  A judge of the Massachusetts Court of Appeals granted a last-ditch appeal by the Massachusetts Attorney General for a preliminary injunction to halt the sale scheduled at Sotheby's for November 13. The AG had requested more time to complete the investigation. The injunction holds until December 12.
Comments on this and other posts found in the blog archive are always welcome at: gplatt63@gmail.com

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