CONNECTIONS: Failure may beget future success for Berkshire Museum

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By Tuesday, Nov 28 Life In the Berkshires  19 Comments
The national and international attention the Berkshire Museum has received since threatening to sell 40 works of art in its collection may help it gain enough recognition to continue. Photo courtesy Berkshire Museum

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Here is the irony: In failing, the Berkshire Museum may be in the process of doing something to assure its future. Here’s why.

With the Mt. Auburn Associates, the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation created a snapshot of Berkshire County. Here are some of the results: The total population of Berkshire County is a little over 127,800 and the trend is downward. By comparison, the population of the Upper East Side in New York City – just 37 blocks between the East River and Central Park – is about 202,000.

Moreover, wages in Berkshire County are below the national average. The median income in Berkshire County is $49,956 while the median income in the USA is $56,500. Twelve percent are living in poverty compared to 14.3 percent living in poverty nationally, but the figure in Berkshire County is rising.

The population is getting older. The number of citizens over 65 years of age has increased 19 percent, but the number of adults under 65 years old has decreased, as has the number of children. A statistically significant percentage of the houses in South County are for part-time or recreational use only.

The State of Non-profit Organizations in Berkshire County” by Kay Oehler and Stephen C. Sheppard was prepared in 2012 at the request of the Berkshire County Chamber of Commerce. It reads in part, “The number of non-profits per resident is higher in Berkshire County than in Massachusetts, and it is more than double of that in the US.”

The Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood, a Berkshire nonprofit institution that benefits from national and international recognition. Photo: John Ferillo

Per 10,000 persons, there are 356,728 nonprofits in the USA, or 11.73 percent; 11,107 nonprofits per 10,000 people in Massachusetts, or 17.09 percent; and 349 nonprofits per 10,000 people in the Berkshire County, or 26.97 percent. Taken together, these statistics indicate that Berkshire County does not have enough people with enough money to support the disproportionately high number of nonprofit cultural institutions. Furthermore, the projection is these circumstances will worsen, not improve.

Many Berkshire cultural organizations are able to raise the funds to grow and prosper. According to the president of the board, the Berkshire Museum is not one of them. Let’s take the Berkshire Museum at its word: They are in a downward spiral unable to generate the necessary funds. The question is: Why not? Comparing the Berkshire cultural institutions that are self-sustaining with those that are not, one thing becomes clear: Those who raise enough money have reputations that generate support beyond the boundaries of Berkshire County.

According to the Berkshire Chamber report, the economic impact of visitors to Berkshire County on nonprofits is that “every 100,000 cultural visitors from outside Berkshire County increase economic activity by $10.3 million.”

The number of visitors to a cultural institution such as MASS MoCA can have an impact on the size and type of gifts and grants it receives. Photo courtesy MASS MoCA

Visitor impact is important. “Tanglewood, the Clark Art Institute, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and MASS MOCA bring about 674,000 visitors annually from outside Berkshire County to their sites.”

Visitors are necessary but not sufficient. Gifts and grants are also needed. For each cultural organization, more money is generated annually from gifts and grants than from visitation. However, the size of the gifts and grants and the ability to successfully compete for them is often based on visitation.

So what is it the Berkshire Museum did to potentially assure its future? It threatened to sell part of its collection. It included in the sale works by Norman Rockwell, a widely known and deeply loved artist. The threat attracted national attention; the attempt to sell its assets went viral. The Museum now has national, and perhaps international, recognition. Will it capitalize on its fame?

The Berkshire Museum’s Feigenbaum wing, at right, was created in 2008 to focus attention on science and technology.

So how does the Museum capitalize on this new-found attention? First of all: Don’t sell the only things any national audience has heard of. Second: Don’t plan to focus future construction and programming on a small and dwindling population. Third: Rest your planning on fact-based information both statistical and experiential. For example, the Feigenbaums, Donald and Armand, underwrote a Hall of Innovation. They pledged $2.5 million for new construction – interactive displays focused on science and innovation meant to motivate and create wonder in children and adults. Sound familiar? It should. It is what the Museum announced they would do with the money they realized from the sale. Well, they did that in 2008, and it didn’t work. How do we know? Because, nine years later, the Museum is still reporting they do not have adequate visitation or funds. If it doesn’t work, stop doing it. Don’t pursue a failed path.

Berkshire Museum has a chance. The most ordinary work of a museum – not a Hail Mary pass – will save it. Get their assets back. Preserve and protect them. Hire trained and motivated staff. Do the basic work of a museum – that is, display assets for the enrichment of the visitors. Best of luck for the next 100 years.


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19 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Lauren says:

    Carol, Thank you for weighing in on this. I hope you sent this piece farther and wider than here on the edge.

  2. ira says:

    excellent. sensible. doable.

  3. Leonard Quart says:

    An interesting take. Accept the museum will not become a tourist magnet, and go with its strength–the collection.

  4. susan eiffert says:

    Eloquent, clear, fact based. Beautifully written.

  5. Peter Dudek says:

    The museum now has more local, regional, national and international attention than ever. Monetize that, not the collection.

  6. cathy deely says:

    Dear Carole, I appreciate your analysis and use of data to show the state of the Berkshires and especially the highly competitive environment for non profit fundraising.
    Your argument is that the museum needs visitors to attract grants and donors. And, you say that the failed innovation initiative in 2008, under a different director, should not be repeated. The enhanced STEAM programming proposals are significantly different. But as you point out, visitors are not enough for sustainability. All culturals compete for the same tiny sums the Mass Cultural Council gives out. The Berkshire Museum is a ‘community’ museum that generally does not attract funding from deep pocketed individuals more drawn to the larger national reputation museums. Building a sustainable endowment is the key to our museum’s future.
    Perhaps if people thought of endowment as they do their retirement financial planning, they would appreciate the seriousness of this avenue and these choices. In that retirement planning, people often have to sell their family home – a valued asset and a difficult but necessary decision.
    Finally, my confidence in the highly experienced and committed trustees and staff allows me to believe firmly that they know the reality of the entire landscape and are laser focused on financial sustainability for generations to come.

    1. Carol Diehl says:

      There are no museum experts on either the staff or the board of the Berkshire Museum. There are no curators–not for art, nor for the science and technology they say they want to promote. The plan they have, to gut the building and collection of an institution over 100 years in the making, and replace it with expensive pre-fabricated “experiences” that have to be continually upgraded, is one designed to burn money. Why do they need $20M? The Albuquerque Museum, a similar museum under similar circumstances added a science wing for $6M, and the exhibits are generated in-house. The solution is vision, creativity, and fund-raising — sadly lacking at the BM in recent years. It could be a first-class regional museum that draws on tourist traffic, adding to the Pittsfield economy, as well as having a science and technology addition in one of the nearby vacant buildings. With the national attention, this is an unprecedented moment for fundraising, and we could turn the museum from a black eye to a place everyone wants to visit.

      1. cathy deely says:

        Hi Carol, You’ve raised the Albuquerque Museum a number of times in your various platform posts. A few fun facts that might shed further light on the ‘comparison.’
        The Albuquerque Museum is a city owned and operated museum. The city’s population is 560,000. If I read their 990 correctly, they received $3million from the city for general operating expenses. They received $1.2 million in city bond financing for restoration of 1 permanent exhibit. A partnership with the local Science Center provides free exhibitions. I ran out of time to locate the City, and perhaps State financing, of the new wing you referenced but I”m sure it was substantial. Attendance at Albuquerque Museum is 36,000 and at the Berkshire Museum is 48,000.
        Albuquerque Museum uses investment income of $527,000 from what appears to be a $9million endowment.
        It looks like Berkshire Museum raises more funds through events.
        I don’t think this is a fair comparison.
        I do completely agree that the museum could be a regional resource since one would have to travel to Boston and go to four different museums to get the range of programming the Berkshire Museum offers and will attract in the future with an enhanced STEAM institution. So looking forward to that!

    2. Peter Dudek says:

      I believe the Mass Cultural Council has given a total of 1 million dollars over the past several years. Why is that considered to be tiny?

      1. cathy deely says:

        Any government support is certainly important and welcome. I don’t need to tell you that the funds that the City of Pittsfield, the State of MA through the MCC or national funding for the arts pales in comparison to funding provided by other cities, states and national governments. The MCC provided $1.6million to the Berkshire Museum over 10 years. While that is welcome funding for a necessary community institution, it is a small portion of the annual budget and hard won given the intense competition with other cultural, humanities and science institutions (MCC priority institutions) in the Berkshires where we have more culturals than comparable areas in the US of A. I hope that clarifies my comment.

    3. Carl Stewart says:

      Thank you, Ms. Deely, for setting the record straight on the significant differences between the Berkshire Museum and the one in Albuquerque. Carol Diehl is, unfortunately, not the only supporter of the failing status quo at the former, who apparently has no problem with propagating fake news to bolster her position. Trumpworld has a home here in the Berkshires despite the fact that most of us thought we were immune. You

  7. Anonymous says:

    Why don t the people who have etxra money make sizable donations to the cause and deduct it from their taxes.

  8. Leanne Hayden says:

    Well done! The museum needs to get back to doing the difficult and ordinary work of museum work. They have a sizable endowment that can grown with the proper investment strategy and development work. Well done summarizing the situation!

  9. Anonymous says:

    The Museum needs change to be here for future generations. If it fails there will nothing on display for the people of the Berkshires. \T\ T Those in protest

    1. Peter Dudek says:

      Change the people in charge for ones that can properly right the ship and the future will be secured. Fiscally and creativity, for all to experience.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Those in protest of the sale of the art. Specifically the Rockwell paintings are further putting the Museum in financial hardship.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Someone of extreme wealth should purchase the Rockwell paintings. Then donate them back to the Museum as a tax write off.

    1. Peter Dudek says:

      So the museum can sell them again?

  12. Christopher H. L. Owen, A.I. A. Architect says:

    Thank you Peter Dudek fon your two remarks November 28th. I need not add my own as previously I have. May I particularly suggest that all following these comments reread Peter’s of 1:35PM today November 28th. Further to this remark I suggest that anyone sending in anonymous comments be ignored, and, Cathy (Deely) my good friend please rethink your thoughts along the lines of Peter Dudek’s . The Berkshire Museum deserves to be saved for its uniqueness, BUT with trustees and staff that have the necessary experience and knowhow to take advantage of its current fame!

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