The group of citizens are hoping to put a halt on the sale of the artwork and engage in a larger conversation about how to fix the museum's financial woes.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Save the art, pause the sale. Save the art, pause the sale.
That's what was chanted outside of the Berkshire Museum on Saturday morning by close to 50 community members who want to halt the museum's plans to sell some 40 pieces of artwork in an effort to straighten its finances.
That, however, includes auctioning off some $50 million worth of artwork.
While the announcement of the plan to use the proceeds from the sale to build an endowment and completely renovate the South Street building received fanfare from many, for others, selling the artwork is enraging.
"We don't agree with their plans and we don't appreciate the way they announced their plans. We are hoping to engage the museum in a discussion and this is the first of several protests we are planning," said Peter Dudek, one of the founders of a new group Save the Art.
On Saturday, the group's first protest was held outside of the museum. The group says the works of art being placed on the auction block are irreplaceable and there are other ways to turn the museum's financial situation around. They don't have all the answers, but they want to be part of that conversation.
"Selling art is never a good thing, that's No. 1. Selling the best pieces in the collection is never a good thing. If they need to do anything, they need to bulk up their endowment and not spend another $20 million on changing the interior of the building," Dudek, an artist, said.
The museum announced the plans a month ago and intends to raise $10 million and to match an estimated $50 million from the auction. That will be used to create a $40 million endowment and the $20 million balance will go to a full renovation. Museum officials said the plans for the museum's "reinvention" came with input from more than 400 people in the community.
Dudek, however, says those 400 people weren't told the full story. And the pieces of art were off the campus before any one in the community had a list of which paintings would be sold.
"They came to a conclusion of what to do before they announced it to the general community and they kind of snuck the work out of the building before the community knew it was going. When they said the Rockwells were going to be for sale, they didn't list the names of the other work for sale and at that point, the stuff was already packed up," Dudek said.
The most notable pieces of art for sale are two paintings from Norman Rockwell, who donated the pieces to the museum. That sale has been objected to by a number of art organizations, particularly by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, and Rockwell's three sons. Dudek says there are other pieces of priceless art that the community shouldn't lose -- such as the works by Albert Bierstadt, Federic Edwin Church, Rembrandt Peale, and Alexander Calder.
"The museum's decision has gotten quite a bit of press but a lot of people don't understand the depth of the issue. Some people still think it is just the Rockwell paintings and are surprised to hear about the Hudson River paintings," Dudek said.
Dudek and Leslie Ferrin, who owns the Ferrin Gallery, got the ball rolling in trying to tell people the value of the other pieces, and the Rockwells, through Facebook. The group has grown to more than 1,000 people.
The group says it is not just about the Norman Rockwell paintings but an array of other pieces also deemed priceless to the community.
"We have over 1,000 people in our Facebook group and it seems to be growing every day. There is a real momentum and the word is still kind of getting out," Dudek said. "This isn't just a bunch of artists, this is a wide spectrum of the community."
Sotheby's has the artwork and is preparing to put it on the auction block. Museum officials say there is a contract in place and the work can't come back to the museum. But Dudek calls that preposterous and that "the work can always come back."
What the Save the Art wants is an open conversation about the best way to save the Berkshire Museum without selling off the pieces they deem priceless.
"The museum is not closing tomorrow. They said it would be five to eight years. Let's pause the sale, let's have a broader conversation, let's engage more of the community," Dudek said.
Dudek says he doesn't have the answer off-hand but wants to be involved in the discussion to help craft a better plan.
The Berkshire Museum is an "interdisciplinary" museum with fine arts being one piece of is collection. The 40 artworks slated for sale represent only a small portion of the museum's total fine art collection. Berkshire Museum leadership has determined that those pieces heading for auction are not critical to the museum's mission but that their sale will set the museum up to survive well into the future.
Save the Art, however, says the sale would only be a temporary fix and that losing the pieces will cause the museum to see fewer visitors and fewer private donations.
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