Berkshire Museum plan spurs New England Museum Association think tank on 'deaccessioning dilemma'

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PITTSFIELD — Amid the conversation sparked by Berkshire Museum's plan to sell key pieces of its art to fund a renovation and new direction, the New England Museum Association has decided to add a session to its annual conference on the topic of the ethics of decommissioning art.

The plan has ignited an international conversation around the ethics of decommissioning art and selling it or deaccessioning, and the financial struggles museums around the country currently face.

Berkshire Museum's decision to auction art to fund a major structural overhaul could have far-reaching impacts on the museum field.

That's why the New England Museum Association decided to add a "think tank" on the topic to its annual conference, happening later this month in Falmouth. The title of the event is, "The Deaccessioning Dilemma: How Can We Support Standards AND Museums in Crisis?"

"It's something that the field feels very strongly about," said Dan Yaeger, executive director of the association. "It really goes to the heart of what we maintain as the public trust."

The museum in July announced its plans to auction dozens of pieces of art as part of its new vision, a $60 million reinvention and renovation plan for the 114-year-old South Street institution. The auction, which will be run by Sotheby's, is expected to yield at least $50 million.

The plan would violate an established code of ethics set by the American Alliance of Museums, which says money yielded by the sale of collections may only be used within a museum's collections department.

Without this standard, the alliance argues, collections meant to be publicly enjoyed are vulnerable to the private market. It contends the decision undermines fundraising efforts, since would-be donors may start thinking museums could simply sell off collections in order to stay afloat and deter those who would donate artifacts for fear their donations could later be sold to the highest bidder.

Leaders of the museum maintain their plan is the right strategy for the future of the museum and the future of Pittsfield.

Yaeger said it's becoming increasingly tempting for museums to liquidate the assets presented in the art and artifacts comprising their collections.

"How can we as a field come up with ideas to both support the standards and also support institutions that are in trouble?" Yaeger asked.

That's the question the organization will pose to experts during the session. He said he also hopes to explore the original meaning of the professional standards and ideas for living within them.

"How can there be an alternative to deaccessioning within the field itself?" he said. "It's the start of a conversation."

Reach Amanda Drane at 413-496-6296, or @amandadrane on Twitter.


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