Francis Moriarty: Art, local identity and civics

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PITTSFIELD— A number of artworks, including two paintings by Norman Rockwell, are soon to be auctioned off as part of a controversial deaccession of art held in the collection of the Berkshire Museum.

The scheduled sale has run directly into a nascent force that threatens to stymie the museum board's ambition to radically transform the venerable institution. That opposing force combines collective memory and an upsurge of local pride.

This opposition has come to include members of the Rockwell family, who reportedly have taken legal advice regarding the sale. Deaccession by museums usually (but not always) means selling artwork in order to acquire other artwork. In this case, the museum wants money for a fundamental transformation in form and purpose. The Berkshire Eagle has reported extensively on the proposal.

Many people — not just opponents — find the issues complex and deserving of a longer, more nuanced discussion than the countdown to deaccession permits. Some worried individuals hope that paying lawyers might help buy that time.

The debate has morphed into a them-versus-us clash that is neither peculiar to here, nor unique to the world of art and collection. It has also ignited a discussion about identity, the ownership of culture, and something once called civics.

It would be tempting for the museum's leadership to write off the opposition as sappy nostalgia-lovers yearning for a hazy, idealized American past that is sorely out of step with a hi-tech future. But that would be deeply ironic, maybe even self-defeating.

That's because a hazy, idealized, sappy nostalgia for an America proud of its most heartfelt values and aspirations is precisely what Norman Rockwell embodied. It's why he is loved and his work adored. It's also why his work fetches the millions of dollars for which the museum's leadership desperately pines.

For people here who were an integral part of Rockwell's process, and who sometimes literally see family members, neighbors, schoolmates and even themselves represented within Rockwell's images, this is even more powerful stuff.

To find oneself at odds with the values that the images represent, and indifferent to the real people depicted in them, is dangerous territory.

This writer has returned to the Berkshires after nearly three decades in Hong Kong, a city that hosts frequent auctions of art, jewelry and other items that bring eye-watering prices. A powerful driver behind some of the most spectacular and frenzied auctions is the desire to reacquire special items and return them not only to the place of production, but to the culture from which they were removed, whether by force, stealth or purchase. This is essential to the assertion of cultural identification and pride, and is a growing force worldwide.

The relevance of emotion and identity to the Berkshire Museum's planned sale is evident. But the Rockwell (and other) works awaiting sale have not been hauled away by invaders or smugglers. There is no return being sought. These works remain here, but the proposed sale would send them off, maybe forever, possibly into private hands where only a privileged few would ever see them.

The works generating the most heat possess special qualities that add octane to the debate.

The big money-spinners among the deaccessioned art are of course the Rockwell paintings "Blacksmith's Boy-Heel and Toe" done in 1940, and "Shuffleton's Barbershop" painted a decade later. Rockwell gave them to the museum, presumably intending that they remain among the very people whom he depicted in his illustrations of quintessential American life.

Thing is, people here consider Rockwell a local boy. Many of his works were painted in Stockbridge, where residents kept secret the location of studio to protect him from invasive tourists. His models were often locals. (Full disclosure: This writer was one among the many.)

Proceeds from the auction (minus auctioneer's fees) are expected run into many millions of dollars. These returns would finance a transformation of the museum into a facility showcasing high technology — a radical change from the existing, traditional concept of a museum as a place displaying classical sculpture, geological samples, dioramas of natural environments and even an Egyptian mummy.

But it's not just the museum's content and purpose that would alter. The building itself would be substantially redesigned, raising not only aesthetic issues but also hard questions about costs. Technical matters, like air conditioning, heat and humidity control, can be devilishly hard to get right, especially in older structures. They are often more expensive to install and maintain than estimated.

But the rub is this: The proposal for the museum runs counter to the intention of Zenas Crane, papermaker and philanthropist, who gave the land and money to build a Berkshire Museum for Natural History and Art. Maybe this huge change is a bad thing, but maybe it's not.

What local folks are telling me is that the museum was founded with an intention grounded in civic pride, community and generosity of spirit. They grasped that intention even in childhood, and remember the museum as a place to visit, marvel, learn about a wider world, all the while safe. Rockwell's art not only depicts that era, it calls up the deep yearning for a better time and place.

The museum may yet sell the paintings. But it does not appear to have sold the community on a competing vision of neighborliness and commonality of values.

Francis Moriarty is a regular Eagle contribution on local and international issues.




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