Massachusetts Agrees to Allow Berkshire Museum to Sell Its Art

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The financially strapped Berkshire Museum will be allowed to sell dozens of its artworks, but one of them, a beloved Norman Rockwell painting, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” will be sold to another museum and remain on public view, under an agreement announced Friday between the Berkshire museum and the Massachusetts attorney general’s office.

The agreement, which requires court approval, could end a contentious chapter in the history of the museum, which said its survival depended on the sales but whose plan provoked immediate objections from critics and museum associations who said that collections should not be treated like commodities.

Museum officials did not name the institution that is purchasing the Rockwell or the price to be paid, but said the identity would eventually become known.

The Berkshire Museum, in Pittsfield, Mass., announced over the summer that it was planning to sell as many as 40 works by artists including Rockwell, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt and others, then use the proceeds to increase its endowment, renovate its building and expand its programming.

Rockwell’s three sons were among those upset by the plan, and the attorney general, who had said that the sales would violate the provisions of various charitable trusts, asked a judge to block the planned auction of some works in November 2017.

The debate was also closely watched within the art world and drew protesters to the steps of the museum.

Professional organizations have long held that it is improper for museums to sell art for any reason other than to acquire new works or care for existing ones. Last summer the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors issued a joint statement regarding the Berkshire Museum’s plans, saying: “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.”

On Friday the groups thanked the attorney general for examining the sale but lamented the result.

“While the negotiated agreement with the Berkshire Museum may satisfy legal standards, it falls far short of ethical standards and best practices for museums,” they wrote. “This is indeed a sad day for the arts community in the Berkshires and the museum community across the country.”

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