Day 6

Public art vs private cash: why Norman Rockwell's family opposes museum art auction

The Berkshire Museum is planning to sell forty works of art, including two Norman Rockwell paintings donated to the museum by the painter. But Norman Rockwell's grandson, Geoffrey Rockwell, opposes the museum's sale of the artwork.
(L: AP / Beth J. Harpaz, R: Hulton Archive via Getty )

Norman Rockwell's paintings are some of the most recognizable — and iconic — in the world. 

Starting as a teenager in the early 1900s, Rockwell spent more than 60 years creating poignant scenes from everyday events in American life.

When my grandfather gave it to the Berkshire Museum, he gave it to be enjoyed by the public.- Geoffrey Rockwell, grandson of Norman Rockwell

He was most successful as an illustrator, with hundreds of his pieces appearing on the covers and in the pages of magazines including Life and the The Saturday Evening Post.

Geoffrey Rockwell, the grandson of American artist Norman Rockwell. (University of Alberta)

Geoffrey Rockwell is Norman Rockwell's grandson. He explains that because his grandfather was paid for the illustrations that appeared in print rather than the original paintings, many of the paintings were given away. 

Later in life, the artist gave many of his works to public institutions like the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass.

The museum has recently announced that it plans to auction off two Norman Rockwell paintings, among others, to raise money for its endowment fund.

But the younger Rockwell wants his family's favourite Norman Rockwell painting to remain in a museum for the public to see.

"'Shuffleton's Barbershop' is one of the really beautiful ones. It's evocative, it's got lots of detail and it actually echoes old Dutch masters," Rockwell tells Day 6 host, Brent Bambury.

That particular work is among the Norman Rockwell paintings that the Berkshire Museum plans to auction off this fall.

"No board ever wants to have to make this choice at all. And so, it's been pretty clear to us that if we don't do something, there will be no museum, and that choice was just not an option for us," says Elizabeth McGraw, the president of the board of trustees for the Berkshire Museum.

McGraw says that the museum will be forced to close in six years unless it bolsters its endowment and reinvents itself as a more science- and nature-oriented institution.

Visitors crowd into the galleries to look at some of Norman Rockwell's paintings Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. (AP Photo/The Berkshire Eagle/Gillian Jones)

The intent of the gift

Geoffrey Rockwell says selling the painting to make money is not what Norman Rockwell would have intended.

"When my grandfather gave it to the Berkshire Museum, he gave it to be enjoyed by the public."

It's another thing when you're deaccessioning things because they're worth a lot of money and you want a nice big endowment.- Geoffrey Rockwell, Norman Rockwell's grandson

Rockwell is one of six family members who wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper, The Berkshire Eagle, last week. They asked the museum to postpone the sale of "Shuffleton's Barbershop" in order to find a public institution or a donor who will agree to keep the painting in the public domain.

A pedestrian walks past the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass. on July 12, 2017. (Ben Garver/The Berkshire Eagle/AP)

"We would appreciate it if the Berkshire Museum could work with various parties to both meet their financial constraints and honour the intent of the gift," says Rockwell.

But McGraw says the Berkshire Museum has not yet heard from any parties interested in buying the painting. She says despite facing opposition from the local and arts communities, the museum leaders will not back down on their decision to sell the art.

The museum expects to raise $50 million (USD) by selling this collection.

Rockwell says the museum is sending a dangerous message with its planned sale.

"It's one thing when you deaccession works that are damaged, are difficult to maintain or are very remote from the mission of the museum. But it's another thing when you're deaccessioning things because they're worth a lot of money and you want a nice big endowment, and you want to do something cool with that money," says Rockwell.

"No amount is enough"

Rockwell says his grandfather gave the Berkshire Museum the two paintings about 50 years ago. At the time he says his grandfather would never have anticipated what those pieces would be worth today, especially with big names like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas collecting them.

On the value of "Shuffleton's Barbershop," Rockwell says, "To the family, no amount is enough. To the public of the Berkshires, it's hard to say."

He says he expects the painting will sell for tens of millions of dollars because in 2013, another of what he calls Norman Rockwell's "top masterworks" — a painting called "Saying Grace" — sold for $46 million. 

The popular Norman Rockwell masterpiece "Saying Grace." (AP Photo/Sotheby's File)

Modelling for his grandfather

Norman Rockwell often used family and neighbours as models in his art. Rockwell says his grandfather used him only once in a painting.

"I was born in 1959, right after my grandmother passed away, and in "The Golden Rule," he placed me as a baby in the arms of my grandmother — Mary Rockwell."

"The Golden Rule" is still available for the public to see at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

A woman and child view magazine front covers drawn by American Norman Rockwell in Dulwich Picture Gallery, in London, England. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

To hear the full interview with Geoffrey Rockwell, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.