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Berkshire Museum should honor donor intent, support public trust

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By Wednesday, Oct 25, 2017 Letters 14

To the Editor:

We, the petitioners, stand by the stated intent of founder, Zenas Crane, and the many donors to the Berkshire Museum over its history. Crane established the Museum as “an institution to aid in promoting for the people of Berkshire County and the general public the study of art, natural science, the culture history of mankind…” In doing so, Crane donated the building, the land and a place for OUR permanent collection.

We stand with those who support “Save the Art – Save the Museum” and have taken public steps to stop the Berkshire Museum’s intended sale of its most valuable works. These institutions and individuals include:

  • The Rockwell family (Jarvis, Thomas, Peter, Barnaby, Geoffrey, John, Margaret)
  • The Massachusetts Cultural Council (“strongly opposes the plan as a violation of the Museum’s public trust”)
  • The Smithsonian Institution (who cancelled their affiliation with the Museum)
  • The American Alliance of Museums, (AAM), President & CEO, Lori Lott
  • The Association of Art Museum Directors, Lori Fogarty, President (and CEO, Oakland Museum of California)
  • Dan Monroe, President and CEO, The Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass. and former AAM President
  • Stephen Sheppard, Professor of Economics, Williams College, Williamstown, Mass.
  • E. J. Johnson, Professor of Art Emeritus, Williams College, Williamstown, Mass.

We represent 200 + (and growing daily), who have donated to our community education and legal funding efforts through the GoFundMe site (https://www.gofundme.com/savetheartsavethemuseumv) and the 25 others who donated privately.

We represent 2,100 signed petitioners and reflect the voices of the more than 2,000 active followers on two Save the Art Facebook pages. These include Pittsfield and Berkshire County residents and visitors, as well as artists, arts professionals, museum lovers, and concerned citizens throughout the U.S. and abroad who have strong ties to the Berkshires.

No fewer than four financial experts have agreed that the Museum’s need is not dire as claimed. We therefore advocate vigorous fundraising instead of liquidating the collection. In addition, we oppose the Museum board’s sale of art because it threatens the integrity of ALL museums. Disposing of long-standing gifts to fund basic operations, renovation and expansion violates the code of ethics of museum governance and undermines the meaning and purpose of the public trust. It breaches the intent of donors who made their gifts for public benefit, and does not reflect the interests of the community, whose voices have been deflected by Museum leadership since this divisive plan was announced.

In recognition of its significance, our story has been covered sympathetically by national and regional media including the New Yorker, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, and NPR.

We invite the public to join our demonstration in front of the Berkshire Museum to “Save the Art” on Saturday, October 28th, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

Sharon Gregory, Great Barrington, on behalf of “Save the Art — Save the Museum” and its supporters.

14 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Karen Chase says:

    Can you make the link to the GofundMe site a live link? That would be helpful.

  2. Brian Richardson says:

    In the recent past, the Berkshires lost a major institution serving the public, the North Adams Regional Hospital, which spiraled downward for many years. It has also lost major employers, who were contributors to the Berkshire Museum. The trustees have the insight that the museum is not viable without decisive action. Berkshire Museum, like other museums, costs more to operate than the revenue from admission fees. Government grants and fundraising are not adequate to cover the shortfall. The sale will fund an endowment whose earnings can fill the gap.

    With the sale, there is good reason to believe that the museum will not merely survive, but thrive. The trustees have a vision for how a brick-and-mortar museum can be relevant in the 21st century.

    MCC executive director Anita Walker recently said, “I don’t think it’s any more fragile than a lot of our nonprofit and cultural organizations that are struggling with the same challenges the Berkshire Museum is facing.” Her statement stands in stark contrast to the leadership shown by the museum’s trustees. Just how fragile does the situation need to be before the museum makes hard but necessary decisions?

    The letter advocates “vigorous fundraising.” The museum, like most nonprofit institutions, regularly engages in vigorous fundraising. Even if the controversy allowed it to get more contributions, how long would it last? Would it reduce what people give to other institutions?

    1. Carol Diehl says:

      I’m not sure on what you are basing your opinion. At least four financial experts in the field have examined the Museum’s financial statements and determined that the need has been exaggerated. Further, the Museum has not engaged in significant fundraising since its last capital campaign in 2008–so what they might or might not gain is pure speculation. Actually, with local, national, and now international attention on the Museum, the possibilities for support–were they to take the right steps and bring back the art–are infinite. This is how the Detroit Institute of the Arts turned around — and it’s in Detroit, a desperate city. Rather than divide the community and separate itself from all possible other funding options (such as the MCC, which gave them over $1M over the last 10 years) the Museum leadership should seize this moment to do the right thing, bring back the art, and evolve into this century with its history intact.

    2. Sharon Gregory says:

      The Executive Director said there is no promise of incremental more visitors in the plan of this “new Vision.” Thus, what financial and cultural health will this sale produce beyond more design and construction jobs for a short time for a few companies? And how many people will bypass the museum as visitors and donors in the future. Sure the Museum languishes when it does not show its prized artworks, when it lacks an imaginative curator and a grant writer. Instead, it has concentrated its finances and time on a re-visioning rather than reinvigorating. (Just read its audited reports and it will be abundantly clear. The last major capital campaign was nearly 10 years ago. The annual fundraisers net very little relative to the costs laid out.). How long has it been since the board’s majority consisted of those sensitive to the cultural arts in depth?). I firmly believe, as many others do, that the Museum has enormous untapped promise. It does not need to create an atrium roof to increase its appeal to children. Good programs will.

  3. Lawrence Davis-Hollander says:

    If the museum wants to forward with a vision then it must to understand its past, its collections, and their significance. Apparently it does not. Not only does this undermine any perceived integrity the museum and its leaders have it is quite simply a theft. We as humans have a long history of exploiting resources of all sorts and the sale of these paintings is not so different. When you look at beauty as cash then nothing else matters.

    This is an institution operating by law in the public interest
    and benefit. Is this truly a matter of survival or exploitation? If truly survival do you really need to sell the entire primary collection? Do you really think your public is that stupid?

    The Museum is concerned it won’t remain relevant …. I think the Director and Board of Trustees have gone out of the way to prove their case…. and perhaps they are correct…. the Berkshire Museum is becoming irrelevant….. an art museum without its collection surely is irrelevant.

    1. Mike says:

      The Berkshire Museum has been irrelevant for many years now…the upcoming auction just puts the final nail in the coffin.

      1. Carol Diehl says:

        But doesn’t need to be irrelevant. With creative programming and yes, vigorous fundraising, it could thrive as a regional museum “of Natural History and Art” as Zenas Crane intended. All it would take is vision and energy.

  4. Ben Greenfield says:

    The Berkshire Museum I believe is the only public institutution in Berkshire County that owns any artwork from Alexander Calder. They own these due to a friendship between Zenas Crane and Alexander Calder’s father also named Alexander Calder. This friendship led to the younger Calder’s first Unitied States commission which are the sculpture in front of the air vents in the theater. Many consider the younger Calder the greatest American Sculptor and to think of Zenas Crane jump starting his career should be celebrated by the Berkshire Museum. The divesting of any Calder’s is sad and dismisses the special multi-generational relationship between the Cranes and the Calder’s. I believe it also dimisesses Zenas Crane’s love of art.

  5. Rusty Mott says:

    As a second generation antiquarian book and manuscript dealer, I have seen this sort of misguided conduct over and over. Museums and institutional special collections libraries have long been selling off, or attempting to sell off, the very things they were established to preserve and showcase.

    In 1966 when Ronald Reagan was first elected governor of California, in order to satisfy his animus against the University of California, and it’s students, he proposed cutting their budget, and selling off Berkeley’s rare book collections. Such collections do not exist just to look at, but are essential for their research value in studying literature, science, religion, or any field one can think of pertaining to the human condition. The same is true for art and science museums. Thankfully, that California proposal didn’t come to fruition.

    More recently the Massachusetts Horticultural Society of Boston, (admittedly strapped financially), owners of one of the greatest collections of rare books in the Western Hemisphere in the areas of horticulture, botany, agriculture, gardening and landscape design, spanning five centuries, a great many of them illustrated, sold off 2000 rare titles for over $5,000,000 in 2002, despite sound advice against doing so and wide-spread criticism of the sale. That sale put a gaping hole in their collection, but, providentially, was a boon to the forward thinking Chicago Botanic Garden, which acquired those magnificent books, the earliest of which was published in 1483. The new owner’s stated purpose was “to share these treasures with the public through public exhibitions, research appointments, online exhibitions, and digitization.” One would think that a modern Berkshire Museum should have a similar goal.

    I can think of instances where this occurred at several other major institutions including in a massive way the New York Public Library in the late 90s when they sold over 500 cartons of printed pamphlets to rare book dealers, some dating from the 17th century, and in the process guillotined the spines to make them less valuable.

    Maybe it is time to stop looking at art as dollar signs, and realize, as one librarian said about her town’s sale of historical artifacts, “You can’t get your history back. People don’t realize: once it’s gone, it’s gone.” The same certainly goes for art.

    1. Sharon Gregory says:

      Thank you, Rusty, for your wisdom. I hope it will be contagious!

  6. Linda Cleary says:

    First, the Museum refuses to share the sources of their ‘insight.’ That is they have not demonstrated the basis for their argument that the “New Vision” (which is actually a dated concept already) will ensure the viability of the museum. They have also failed to demonstrate the root cause of their financial decline. Without identifying the root cause, the problem will plague any re-invented facility. Hocking the museum’s collection is unethical by professional standards. The art is not theirs to sell nor the building theirs to destroy. The museum trustees have no understanding of the richness of the museum as a regional centerpiece . If managed and promoted properly, it provides the lens through which the beauty and history of Berkshire County can be more fully appreciated. If people think the museum is irrelevant, it is because the museum hasn’t fulfilled its educational mission. It needs leadership and a staff with the knowledge and expertise to bring forth its unique intrinsic value as a regional museum. If the new vision is all that, those who wish to build it will have no problem finding corporate sponsors to build a new exciting facility to draw people to Pittsfield. Pawning the museum artwork to fund a pet project or inject millions of dollars into the coffers of local banks under the guise of re-invention is nothing short of thievery.

  7. Cathy Deely says:

    It’s been months now that we’ve had an opportunity to hear and consider opinions from all sides. It’s been clear to me that opinions can differ wildly based on the same set of facts. And that some people think that making inflammatory statements and personal attacks is productive in debate.
    My bottom line rests in the trust I have in the long time local, highly experienced board members who wrested with reality and made a difficult and necessary decision in order to secure the future of the museum.
    In addition to listening and using my experience in non profits, Museums, trusteeship, corporate philanthropy, media, politics, finance and financial planning – I’ve learned that I’ve been able to shed light of understanding for some people and failed to convince others.
    I’ve learned a great deal about the museum world. That immersion has taught me that the arts associations do not represent trustees – a troubling concept to me. AAM by their own admission is trying to change that but they represent 33% of Museums staff. Despite that, they ‘police’ all museums with consequences that have and will be overcome by others.
    It is long overdue for a national neutral convening on the issue if deaccessioning- a very complicated issue. And to engage with the AAM in their work in improving, expanding and supporting the vital work of trustees.
    Finally, I’ve also seen that ‘the community ‘ is made up of people, not the social media crowd sourcing definition of the community, who want and do go with their families or school groups to the Berkshire Museum because it is a valuable resource and pleasure for them…and they expect it to continue to be. They know they will continue to see wonderful art, contrary to claims otherwise. They look forward to a refreshing of exhibitions and an even stronger STEAM program as well – in part because they live in the present and do not grasp onto The ossification of the past.
    So now it is both up to the law and ultimately to a willingness for the community to come together- no matter the outcome- and to continue to celebrate our very special place. I’ll be there and hope you will too!

    1. Peter Dudek says:

      The problem with the “new vision”, as the AG said, it’s not a plan. And there’s no reason to let the people who put the museum in “crisis mode” to continue. When Vam Shields was hired the museum claimed it was in great shape. And the director continued to echo that claim until this past summer. What did he do that created the crisis?

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