PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire Museum can proceed with its planned sale of some 40 pieces of art after a Supreme Judicial Court ruling Thursday.
The ruling affirms the agreement the museum had reached with Attorney General Maura Healey in February which includes allowing the museum to sell Norman Rockwell's Shuffleton's Barbershop, provided it remains on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum for 18 months. That agreement allows the art sale to proceed but only until the museum hits $55 million.
The museum is seeking to sell the artwork at auction through Sotheby's and raise some $55 million to reinvest. The museum had been financially struggling and looks to renovate and create an endowment for long-term sustainability.
However, the announcement and the specific pieces of art the museum looked to sell triggered outrage among many in the community. Opponents said the pieces were local treasures that would end up in private collections. They hoped to halt the art sales so the pieces could still be displayed. There were numerous protests outside the museum and even Rockwell's three sons filed a suit in Berkshire Superior Court against the museum.
Healey joined the fight and filed, and received, an injunction to buy time for her to do an investigation. The sale had been tied up in litigation as both sides waited for the court to decide whether or not the sale could go forward. That decision came on Thursday from Justice David A. Lowy, reaffirming the agreement Healey had reached.
"The amici voiced serious concerns regarding, among other aspects of the sale, the effect on the museum's collection, oversight of the sale, and broader cultural impact on the residents of the Commonwealth, particularly Berkshire County. This court acknowledges those legitimate concerns," Lowy wrote.
"Based on the attorney general's investigation into the sale and her assent to the requested relief, the museum has satisfied its burden of establishing that it has become impossible or impracticable to administer the museum strictly in accordance with its charitable purpose, thus entitling the museum to relief under the doctrine of equitable deviation. Accordingly, the court allows the museum's request for equitable relief to sell the designated artwork."
Healey had spent some seven months investigating the museum's finances and ultimately determined that at least of the work would have to be sold.
"The museum's charitable purpose of adding in the study of art, natural science, and cultural history must be protected. The attorney general is that protector. She is the attorney for the people, including those who now oppose the sale. Following a comprehensive seven-month investigation into the museum's financial state and its plan to sell a portion of its collection to avoid insolvency, the attorney general concluded that 'the museum cannot practicably survive without lifting or amending the restrictions on at least some of the works of art to permit their sale,'" Lowy wrote.
"Not only has the attorney general determined that a limited sale of artwork is necessary, the attorney general will maintain an active role in overseeing the deaccession of the artwork to ensure that the public's interests are protected."
The ruling was a disappointment to local groups opposing the sale.
"[Save the Art -- Save the Museum] continues to oppose the sale of the Berkshire Museum's art treasures and its unrestricted use of the resulting funds. We regret the judge's disregard of the public trust in which the museum held its collections," wrote Leslie Ferrin on behalf of the Save the Art -- Save the Museum group.
"The impending sale will not only diminish Pittsfield as a city claiming to be of cultural import to Berkshire County, but will reverberate destructively for years through collections similarly held in trust throughout the state and country. As a group, we will make a more detailed statement after meeting in person to consider the loss to our community, its impact and future actions."
The opposing groups had questioned the museum's need to sell and the planned renovations to the building. But, museum officials had said they $1.1 million deficit in its budget. Last July, museum officials announced its plan to bring in an estimated $50 million through the sale and coupling that with a $10 million fundraising campaign. That $60 million would then pay for a renovation to the museum and create a $40 million endowment.
Board of Trustee Chairwoman Elizabeth McGraw praised the ruling in favor of the museum moving forward with its plan.
"This is great news for the people of Berkshire County and everyone who visits the Berkshire Museum for one-of-a-kind experiences in history, art, and science. We recognize this decision may not please those who have opposed the museum's plans. Still, we hope people will be able to move forward in a constructive way to help us secure and strengthen the future of this museum, at a time when our community needs it more than ever," McGraw wrote.
It isn't clear when the pieces of work will be sold but Sotheby's issued a statement saying it looked forward to working with the museum.
"We are very pleased that the court approved the agreement reached between The Berkshire Museum and the Massachusetts Attorney General. We look forward to working with the museum to ensure a bright future for the people of Pittsfield and western Massachusetts," Sotheby's said in a statement.
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