At Berkshire Museum Art Sale Hearing, Both Parties Find Reason For Hope | Archives
BOSTON – The lawyer able to give the green light to the Berkshire Museum’s art sales gave the institution and its critics reason for hope in an hour-long hearing on Tuesday.
Judge David A. Lowy said that sentiment aside, the key question facing him – in the museum’s petition to sell up to 40 works of art – is whether it would be “impractical” for the 115-year-old Pittsfield Museum to continue without an influx of $ 55 million.
This is the legal standard in the kind of case before it.
But Lowy also peppered lawyers with questions about the possibility of adding a layer of oversight to how that money would be used – a move the museum and the attorney general are opposed to.
And justice expressed its surprise that the museum found itself in such financial difficulties and claims to face the need to close.
“Why is there $ 1.2 million [yearly] deficit? What’s going on? “He asked.
At first, Lowy asked the public, in a packed hall of the majestic John Adams Courthouse in downtown Boston, to refrain from comment.
âThere is a lot of emotion in this question,â Lowy said from the bench.
The Suffolk County Supreme Court of Justice then urged four groups of lawyers to stick to the legal issues, each having 10 minutes to address the court.
No decision has been announced. The matter remains under advisement by Lowy.
At one point, justice pointed out what seemed to be very divergent accounts in the memories.
âI have to tell you that I watch two different films,â he said.
Lawyers were there to flesh out arguments already made in documents filed with the court since February 9, when the museum ended months of litigation with Attorney General Maura Healey.
On that date, the museum filed a so-called cy pres petition asking a single High Court judge to allow it to sell art to survive.
Courtney Aladro, an attorney for Healey’s staff, rose to support a presentation by museum attorney William F. Lee in support of the petition.
“We believe the relief sought is warranted here,” she said.
Lee said the museum would not survive without resorting to art sales. He urged Lowy to settle the matter in time for the museum to provide materials for an auction in May at Sotheby’s in New York. He cited the urgency to meet the April 6 print deadline and move forward with sales.
âWe don’t have time to wait another year or two or three,â Lee said.
Aladro said lawyers in Healey’s office had come to believe late in their investigation into the case that the museum needed to raise $ 55 million.
âWe know not everyone agrees with the decision or the relief,â Aladro told Lowy.
Their views were countered by lawyers representing opponents of the sale, who filed “friend of the court” briefs asking Lowy to consider alternatives to the deal between Healey and the museum.
Lowy admitted that it was unusual for those who filed âfriend of the courtâ briefs to be able to address a hearing – a development the museum and the attorney general objected to.
But Lowy said that since the museum and the attorney general had the same views on the petition before him, he wanted to broaden the discussion.
Lawyer Nicholas O’Donnell, representing three residents of Lenox, told Lowy the work should remain in the Berkshires and said Tuesday’s hearing was the “only remaining obstacle” in their departure from the area.
âMake no mistake, the art market is watching,â O’Donnell said.
To which justice replied: “Maybe they are, but I’m focused on this case.”
Michael B. Keating, a Boston lawyer representing another group of Berkshire County residents, questioned the quality of the museum’s management in recent years and disputed the details of his “new vision”.
This plan, aimed at emphasizing multimedia displays with an increased emphasis on the natural sciences, would be funded largely by proceeds from art sales.
âThere is no real plan to show what the costs and revenues of the New Vision plan would be,â Keating said.
On museum management in general, Lowy echoed Keating’s questions, asking, “Haven’t I read that fundraising has stopped?”
Keating’s court record friend had asked Lowy to consider appointing a “special master” or financial expert, to ensure that the proceeds from art sales are used appropriately.
When Keating first stood up, Lowy said, “I’m very interested in what you have to say about the special master.” He asked how this arrangement might work alongside the statutory role of the Attorney General in overseeing nonprofits and public charities.
Aladro later said his office was ready to guide the museum in art sales. The agreement provides for the museum to file reports while the sales are in progress.
“It is the purpose of these reports for us,” Aladro told Lowy, “to hold the museum accountable for these choices.”
Keating proposed that more oversight is needed. He urged Lowy to “appoint a museum management expert or special master to advise you on the appropriateness of the different actions the museum wishes to take.”
Keating added: “We believe this is such an important event that it requires the court to be a steward.”
Lee disagreed, pointing out that Healey’s office supported the petition, after a lengthy investigation.
âThere’s a steward and there’s an expert – and that’s the attorney general,â Lee said. “They ultimately have the same responsibility they had a year ago, that we fulfill our charitable obligation.”
When asked by Lowy what she thought of a special master in the case, Aladro said she didn’t believe it was necessary.
“I don’t think it’s beyond the powers of the court, but we don’t think it’s necessary,” Aladro said.
But Keating argued that the deal between the museum and Healey’s office lacks bite.
“There are no conditions. Only one report,” he said of a required final sales accounting. âFor the court to approve that would be extraordinary in circumstances like this. “
O’Donnell, the other lawyer representing opponents of the sale, agreed.
“This role, with all due respect to the Attorney General, doesn’t mean much,” he said.