The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled last week that the Berkshire Museum was not at liberty to sell its artworks on view at Sotheby’s, including two famous paintings by Norman Rockwell. The court decided that such sales would violate prior trusts. Yet this decision is a mistake, as it will limit the ability of nonprofit institutions to respond to changing conditions and evolve their missions.
Consider the situation of the museum. It is in an out-of-the-way part of western Massachusetts, doesn’t have a strong local donor base, and is running unsustainable deficits. The institution isn’t just an art museum; it also has history and natural science collections. It wants to help fund those other programs and become a high-tech landmark. Admittedly, that doesn’t reflect the preferences of many art lovers in the community, and it isn’t exactly the original intent of the museum. But the board of the Berkshire Museum made a decision to just shift focus, not to tear up the institution and start all over again.