Berkshire Museum Severs Smithsonian Affiliation Over Controversial Deaccession

The backlash over the sale continues.

Faced with a very public dispute over its deaccessioning of 40 artworks to fund the maintenance and renovation of its building, the Berkshire Museum has severed ties with the Smithsonian Institution.

In July, the Berkshire Museum announced plans to consign works by the likes of Norman Rockwell, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Alexander Calder to Sotheby’s. The auction is expected to raise at least $50 million to replenish the struggling institution’s coffers.

It has, however, provoked widespread criticism, with the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors releasing a joint statement opposing the sell-off: “One of the most fundamental and longstanding principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset.”

The Berkshire has been a Smithsonian affiliate since 2013. In that capacity, the museum has had access to parts of the institution’s collection, scholars, educational programs and resources, and development opportunities. Linda St. Thomas, a representative of the Smithsonian’s Affiliates Program, told artnet News in an email that it requires all members to abide by professional standards set by the American Alliance of Museums, which states that proceeds from any sale of artworks or artifacts may only be used for acquisitions or maintenance of the collections.

“This withdrawal was a mutually agreed upon decision,” St. Thomas emphasized.

The Smithsonian’s Affiliates Program confirmed that it recently received a letter from the Berkshire Museum withdrawing its membership. It has refunded the museum’s annual $3,000 membership fee, officially ending its affiliate status effective August 31.

In a statement to the Berkshire Eagle, which first reported the news, the Berkshire Museum’s executive director Van Shields was unapologetic:

Out of respect for the good relationship we have with the Smithsonian, I initiated a conversation with Smithsonian Affiliations about voluntarily withdrawing our affiliate status because we knew the decision to deaccession art to fund an endowment would not be in compliance with the American Alliance of Museum’s guidelines for the use of proceeds. We subsequently had thoughtful conversations with our partners at the Smithsonian about the decision the Board of Trustees took to fund the New Vision, ensuring the relevance and longevity of the Berkshire Museum for another hundred years.

The Berkshire Museum’s deaccessioning plans are also currently under review by the Massachusetts Attorney General.

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