Speculative investing in art takes the art out of art.

This painting is Shuffleton’s Barber Shop. It was made by Norman Rockwell in 1950, first appearing on the cover of the April 29, 1950 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. It’s one of the paintings that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court just cleared the Berkshire Museum to sell.

Earlier this month George Lucas bought it for his new museum. No one reported the price, but Sotheby’s had estimated the value of the work at $20 to $30 million. What’s frightening about this sale is that when balanced against what accountants call “missed opportunity cost”, the Berkshire Museum couldn’t afford to keep it. Nor could the museum’s neighbor, the Norman Rockwell Museum, afford to bid on it. The price of this once humble painting had locked Rockwell’s own community out of the market for it.

Rockwell, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the Berkshire Museum all have special places in my heart. For more than 25 years my mom was the official “Rockwell correspondent” for the Rockwell Museum. Whenever someone wrote in and asked something like “My dad was one of the seated models in the painting Freedom of Speech. Who was the other?” it was my mother who researched and wrote the answer.

And Laurie Norton, the little kid who grew up across the street from me, is today Laurie Norton Moffet, the superstar executive director of the Rockwell museum, the director credited with turning a small, Main St. collection into an international destination that celebrates illustration of all stripes.

And the Berkshire Museum is the first museum I ever visited, the first place I ever saw world class art.

And, beside all that, Rockwell’s work touches me. I love the ideas of the connected and caring communities he fantasized. And, as a Berkshire County kid in the 50s and early 60s, I knew from experience that his visions weren’t that big of a reach. The warmth and commonalty he painted were right there, living, apparently unaware, right next to the structural racism, the polluting factories and the class division.

So, when the hubbub started about the museum’s plans to sell some of their higher value paintings, I felt conflicted. From my non-profit board member frame, I could easily see the attraction of building a really nice endowment. But from the community’s point of view, this sale just rubbed salt in the wounds that income disparity inflicts.

This sale drove home the fact that art is increasingly valued at prices that put it beyond the reach of less endowed museums. The sad realty is that these valuations make it difficult for these museums to own what they’ve got, let alone add to their collections. In turn, many masterpieces are disappearing into private collections, never to be seen again by the public.

Speaking out about the sale of “our art”, August 12, 2017. Photo: © Gillian Jones/ Berkshire Eagle.

I was kind of relieved, then, to learn of this painting’s fate. Yes, it has been bought by a rich collector. George Lucas is recognized as the world’s most significant private collector of Rockwell. But it was the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art that made the purchase, with the expressed intention of displaying it for all to see.

This particular sale was an art disaster averted. But it won’t be the last. When art is treated as a speculative investment we all lose.

This makes me think about Bread and Puppet Theater’s Why Cheap Art? Manifesto. “Art is not business! It does not belong to the banks & fancy investors. Art is food. You can’t eat it but it feeds you. Art has to be cheap and available to everybody. It’s needs to be everywhere because it is inside the world.”

Art has to be cheap and available to everybody. They wrote this in 1984. In light of how the art market is leaving Rockwell’s celebrated plain folk behind, it was terribly prescient.

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