Image from article, with caption: Norman Rockwell’s ‘Shuffleton’s Barbershop’ (1950), in the collection of the Berkshire Museum
Should masterpieces be sold to fund a ‘reboot’?
Norman Rockwell’s greatest painting is being hijacked—by the museum that owns it.
“Shuffleton’s Barbershop” is a 1950 portrait of three amateur musicians that Rockwell gave to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., not far from his Stockbridge home. Widely known and loved, the painting is even admired by critics who sneer at the rest of his homey oeuvre. Nevertheless, the museum is putting it on the block, along with a second Rockwell and 38 other works by such major artists as Albert Bierstadt, Alexander Calder and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
The reason? Van Shields, director of the Berkshire Museum, wants to “reboot” (his word) the institution, transforming it into a museum of science, history and the arts full of up-to-the-minute interactive technology. The price tag is $60 million—$20 million to renovate the museum’s 1903 building and the rest for a much-needed endowment. The art is being sold to pay the tab because, in the bland language of the museum’s press release, it is “deemed no longer essential to the Museum’s new interdisciplinary programs.” Proceeds will go toward the endowment first, with anything left over directed toward the building costs.
It’s not unusual for museums to sell art, but an offloading of this size can’t help looking like a fire sale. That’s triggered a storm of protest led by Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum, who told the Berkshire Eagle, “To think that selling the art will save the future [of the museum] is simply to push the challenge down the road while diminishing the strength of the institution.”
The announcement has also caught the eye of professional bodies. Because art museums are public institutions whose collections are held in trust, strict rules govern the “deaccessioning” (selling) of works from their collections. Rule No. 1 is that art can be sold only to acquire more art, and the Association of Art Museum Directors further stipulates that proceeds may never be used “as operating funds, to build a general endowment, or for any other expenses.” Not surprisingly, the AAMD and the American Alliance of Museums issued a joint statement on Tuesday calling the proposed sale “an irredeemable loss for the present and for generations to come.”
The Berkshire Museum, however, is not an art museum per se. A collection of 40,000-odd objects ranging from Hudson River School paintings to mummies and stuffed birds, it’s reminiscent of the New England “historical societies” that John P. Marquand described in a novel as charmingly eccentric muddles of “aboriginal arrowheads, muskets, candle molds, foot warmers, pine dressers, Chippendale sideboards, Lowestoft, pewter, and whales’ teeth and four-poster beds.” Its eccentricity was once part of its charm.
But can an old-fashioned curiosity shop hold its own amid newer outposts like Mass MoCA and expanded, revitalized institutions like the Clark Art Institute—not to mention the Rockwell Museum itself? Probably not. In any case, the Berkshire Museum has already evolved into something closer to a children’s museum, a place where no one goes to see art. When I dropped by on Monday, the big draw was a show called “Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked the World.” “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” hasn’t been on view since 2015.
Sadly, the Berkshire Museum isn’t alone in its change of priorities. As public taste continues to shift, more and more museums now see themselves not just as temples of fine art but also as clean, well-lighted community centers where busy people go for casual entertainment and a good lunch.
Small wonder, then, that their permanent collections are coming to be viewed as cash machines. When the University of Iowa was flooded in 2008, a group of legislators proposed that the UI Museum of Art sell Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” (1943) to underwrite the cleanup. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but plenty of smaller museums own a few world-class works that could easily be sold off to raise funds for any number of worthy-sounding causes.
I’m unalterably opposed to monetizing museum collections. On the other hand—reluctant as I am to admit it—I fear that “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” has no place in a trend-chasing museum of the kind that Mr. Shields hungers to build. If so, then it needs a new home, and there’s a better way to get it.
In 2006, Philadelphia’s civic leaders joined forces to stop Thomas Eakins’s “The Gross Clinic” from being sold to Arkansas’ Crystal Bridges Museum by the local medical college where it had hung since 1875. Now it’s jointly owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, meaning that a masterpiece by a Philadelphia artist depicting a prominent Philadelphian has remained in the city of its birth.
In response to the controversy over the proposed sale, Mr. Shields told the Berkshire Eagle that “at the end of the day, the board [of the museum] chose this community over national professional associations.” Fine—but if he really cares about the community, let him give first dibs on “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” to a local museum, thus ensuring that it stays in Rockwell country. Otherwise, it will be hard to escape the conclusion that what Mr. Shields and his board are doing is auctioning off a piece of Pittsfield’s soul to the highest bidder.
—Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, writes “Sightings,” a column about the arts, every other week. Write to him at email@example.com.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.