PITTSFIELD – Although Van Shields and Elizabeth McGraw are no longer at the Berkshire Museum, they will come together this week to explain the museum’s drive to sell its most treasured art a few years ago. Those who opposed this sale may or may not be heard.
Shields and McGraw will appear as members of an online panel on Thursday at a symposium titled “Post-2020 Opt-Out,” sponsored by Syracuse University’s College of Law and Museum Studies Graduate Program.
The Berkshire Museum sale predates the coronavirus pandemic. Claiming it needed to get its finances back on track, the museum fended off legal challenges and opposition from local group Save the Art to sell famous works by Norman Rockwell, Alexander Calder and Albert Bierstadt, among others, raising $ 53.25 million. dollars.
Almost three years later, Shields and McGraw will be part of a panel titled “Regional Museums Make Tough Decisions and Broaden Their Horizons.” It is believed to be the first time the two – Shields, the museum’s former executive director, and McGraw, its former board chair – have joined together to speak publicly about the controversial sale.
When Hope Davis of the Save the Art group learned of the panel’s existence, she asked her organizers to be included. The dean of Syracuse Law School refused, saying the panel was not supposed to debate the merits of the sale.
“This session is not a forum to debate the good or the bad – nor the good or the bad – of these decisions,” wrote Craig M. Boise, the dean, in an email to Davis, declining his request. to join the panel.
Davis said in an interview that she believes the museum divestiture still deserves debate. And she believes the panel’s design, which includes the experience of a small Syracuse museum that sold an artwork in 2020, could distort the context for the Pittsfield sale.
Syracuse University Symposium panelists with links to the Berkshire Museum, from left to right: Van Shields, former executive director; Elizabeth McGraw …
“They are de facto trying to legitimize what they have done,” Davis said. “The Berkshire Museum remains very much in people’s minds. Even though it was an outlier, it was the precursor to what we are seeing now. “
Boise could not be reached on Tuesday to comment on the composition of the panel.
In two messages to Davis, Boise said that an opponent of the Berkshire Museum’s art sale was pictured on another panel. This is Nicholas O’Donnell, the Boston attorney who represented three Lenox residents who tried unsuccessfully to block the sale.
Boise also said the symposium includes “at least two distinguished museum executives – Michael Conforti and Tom Campbell – who are very conservative in their outlook.” Conforti is a former director of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.
If organizers intended to foster debate at Thursday’s panel with Shields and McGraw, Boise said a group like Save the Art would have been included, along with people critical of a sale by the other museum represented on the same panel, the Everson Museum of Art. in Syracuse.
“We would certainly have reached out to those who opposed the actions of these two museums,” Boise wrote to Davis. Copies of their electronic correspondence were obtained by The Eagle.
In October, the Eversons sold a Jackson Pollock painting “Red Composition, 1946” for $ 12 million through Christie’s auction house. The museum said in a statement at the time that it would use the proceeds to diversify its collection “to focus on the work of artists of color, women artists and other under-represented, emerging and mid-level artists. -career”.
Some of the proceeds from the sale, he said, will also be spent on maintaining his 10,000-piece collection, a use sanctioned by the American Alliance of Museums and the Regents of New York State. .
PITTSFIELD – After taking over as head of the Berkshire Museum in 2011, Van Shields surprised his new colleagues by talking about “monetizing” the collection of the Pittsfield institution. It took six …
The sale of the Berkshire Museum, by contrast, has been criticized by directors of the Association of Art Museum Directors for violating its policy on art sales.
The group ordered its 243 members not to collaborate with the Pittsfield institution. The sale also met with opposition from the executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the American Alliance of Museums. This led the Smithsonian Institution to terminate its affiliation with the Berkshire Museum.
The museum is spending approximately $ 3.5 million on repairs to its home at 39 South Street, including a sewer line, waterproofing, and installing a freight elevator, and is now redeveloping the space of its second floor.
Thursday’s panel with Shields and McGraw is described by the symposium as a time to hear from people who “have been there and done this” and will share what went into their decision-making and experiences, providing important lessons for others involved in the leadership of similar institutions.
In addition to former Berkshire Museum officials, viewers will hear Everson Executive Director Elizabeth Dunbar and Chairman of its Board of Trustees Jessica Arb Danial.
The symposium describes panel participants as people who have worked in smaller communities and on tighter budgets than museum executives in large cities.
“One could argue that museums in places like Syracuse, New York and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, are more closely linked – and perhaps more essential – to their communities than their counterparts in large metropolitan areas,” the panel’s program states. “Their volunteer councils are usually not people who can afford to fill structural deficits or fund bold and important initiatives. “
He continues, “These museums are where the ‘rubber hits the road’ in terms of professional standards and the ability of these museums to survive and thrive in the service of their communities, all within the context of their legal obligations to their institutions. . “
McGraw and Shields aren’t the only local names to participate.
Joseph Thompson, founding director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, will participate in a panel Thursday titled “Allocation of Museum Resources: The Cost of Collecting.”
And two people who have spent long hours on the disputed Berkshire Museum sale – from different perspectives – will sit on the same panel. A session titled “Legal Issues, Strategies and the Role of the Courts” includes Courtney Aladro of the State Attorney General’s Office, who worked in 2017 and 2018 to ensure the Pittsfield Museum follows the law.
On that same program will be the man who initially informed Attorney General Maura Healey’s office of the museum’s plan to sell works of art: Mark Gold, of the law firm of Pittsfield Smith Green & Gold LLP. They will be joined in the four-member panel by O’Donnell, the Boston attorney who filed a lawsuit against the sale.
Gold will also host a Friday morning panel on the ethics of museum sales of works of art. Its title refers to “direct care,” a term used to describe the proper use of proceeds from sales. The panel is titled “Direct Care: A Critical Concept Still Seeking Meaning”. And Gold and O’Donnell will be on an “Ask the Lawyers” panel on Friday.