In recent weeks, the museum world media has been inundated with the articles regarding the Berkshire Museum’s plan to auction off 40 pieces of art in its collections to support a $60 million renovation and expansion. As expected, the auction proposal was met with criticism from museum professionals, institutions, and the American Alliance of Museums.

According to an article published last week by NPR, The Berkshire museum, located in Pittsfield, MA has faced an annual budget deficit surpassing $1million annually for the past 10 years. Van Shields, the executive director of the museum, claims that the institution has no choice but to sell a portion of its collection, or die out as an institution. AAM fired back urging The Berkshire to reconsider its funding plan, because this sale of art breaks the public trust and ownership of non-profit museum collections. Collections, said AAM, should not be treated as a financial asset.

This situation leave the Berkshire Museum between a rock and a hard place. How can they otherwise fund raise, and remain a museum at all, while facing extreme financial deficits? Grants alone are unlikely to provide millions, and dependency on a large donor seems unrealistic. They would most likely need to restructure their entire campaign, which could be possible, but could also take years that the museum may not have to meet its annual expenses. However,  the backlash from the museum world if the Berkshire continues with the auction plans (said to be set within the next 6 months) could be detrimental to the museum, and could result in measures such as a ban on loans from other museums, and loss of accreditation.

Looking at the Berkshire Museum’s mission statement below sheds a little light on the place for auction sales within the mission of the museum, and the truth is, the collection is not mentioned:

Berkshire Museum’s mission statement:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           “Bringing people together for experiences that spark creativity and innovative thinking by making inspiring educational connections among art, history, and natural science.”

Very technically speaking, an auction of 40 pieces of artwork, expected to sell for at least $50 million,  could expand the progression of the mission, because without funds, the museum would not be able to exist or spark creativity and innovative thinking without the financial means to do so as an institution. Nowhere in the mission is there mention of preserving, collecting, or hoarding a massive amount of objects.

Yet if one of the purposes of a museum is to serve the public in good trust, then the Berkshire Museum’s decision to auction off art is not in good ethical standing. For example, two of the pieces to be auctioned are Norman Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop.” Rockwell spent the last 25 years of his like in Pittsfield, and gifted these works to the community for public enjoyment and appreciation. The auction of these pieces does not present the good of the public interest. Perhaps selling more pieces of lesser value than a Rockwell would better serve the public interest, but then again, that could place objective value on art which is meant to be subjective to the beholder. The situation is not an easy one.

As museum staff structures themselves move toward more business like models (the number of Executive Directors with MBAs is on the rise) where do collections fit in? Are they permitted to be on the free market for the very survival of an institution? Or do they still rest in the untouchable public domain?