COMMENTARY: Saving the Berkshire Museum

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By Wednesday, Jan 31 Viewpoints  14 Comments

By now even people in San Francisco, where it was on the front page of the Chronicle a few weeks ago, know about our Berkshire Museum’s plans to sell the best of their art collection and raise $60-80 million to fund a new mission. The National Review called it “the biggest art-world story of 2017,” and indeed, it has been written about in over 4,000 outlets worldwide.

The controversy has attracted attention and sparked widespread opposition because it’s about much more than the specific artworks the Museum’s board and staff intend to permanently send away from Pittsfield. Once transferred into private hands, it is most likely that these important works, at least in our lifetimes, will never be seen in public again. The action sets a dangerous precedent for all museums, libraries, and historical societies, and is a blow to the very idea of public access to original artworks, historical artifacts, and manuscripts.

Such deaccessions are related to the damaging long-term national trend toward the privatization of many kinds of assets previously held in the public trust. Escalated under the Trump administration, this includes the selling off of national parklands for private mining and drilling, such as is occurring in the Berkshires’ own Otis State Forest and the plan for PCB dumps in the Housatonic River, as well as the concern over “net neutrality” and control of the Internet which is, in essence, a vital public utility. Responsibility for fixing the infrastructure and the running of prisons, hospitals, and schools, is being transferred to private operators motivated by profit rather than public service.

In contrast, institutions such as the Berkshire Museum were specifically created to provide resources and services for the benefit of the community, with the boards considered the stewards and protectors of the assets. Called “trustees” for a reason, they have heretofore been guided by ethical constraints that only allowed sales from collections for the purpose of improving the collections, not to fund operational expenses. Similarly, those who donated items did so with the intention that they would be cared for and available to the public. The ethical guidelines also have another function, which is to ensure that boards will not leap to sell from collections instead of doing the harder work of fund-raising, or use such profit for individual gain, as in the awarding of construction and other operational contracts to special interests, or the raising of administrative salaries.

Because tax-exempt organizations are beholden to the public whose taxes contribute to their support, their first priority should be the nurturing of community trust. Toward this end, it is essential that their operations and financial records be fully public and transparent, with any significant changes in mission made in the context of community engagement. In the case of the Berkshire Museum, however, many felt betrayed by the Museum leadership’s decision to sell the art, as well as the way they went about it. The Museum’s much touted (and no doubt expensive) “two-year planning process” lacked transparency, rendering its results invalid, as at no time were participants informed that the “New Vision” would be achieved through the sale of important and much-beloved artworks. Instead it was a fait accompli, announced after the deal with Sotheby’s had been signed and the art already removed from Pittsfield. Further engendering suspicion, the Museum held back the full list of the 40 works until public uproar forced their revelation.

In addition, although the Museum has asserted that if it does not sell the artworks it will be forced to close in eight years, officials there have offered no detailed proof to verify this claim. Meanwhile, ongoing analysis by several independent experts has questioned this premise, as well as the need for a $40 million endowment, considered wildly inflated for an institution of its size. Note that the Norman Rockwell Museum gets by with an endowment of $4.5 million, while the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, N.Y., with a similar size, mission and demographic as the Berkshire Museum, has an even smaller endowment. The Albany Institute of History and Art, in an equally economically challenged area, mounts exhibitions reviewed in the New York Times on an annual budget of $500,000 less than the Berkshire Museum, and employs two curators, where the Berkshire Museum has none — nor specialists in their proposed new emphasis on science and technology.

So, yes, the Museum’s actions have created a crisis, but within that crisis lies new opportunity. A recent letter to the Berkshire Eagle quoted P.T. Barnum saying “Do not squander good or bad publicity but exploit it!” The writer suggests that, inspired by Barnum, a “Forty Works Exhibition” could be one of the biggest art events on the East Coast for 2018. In addition, fund-raising opportunities have increased a hundredfold, in just the kind of circumstances that enabled the Detroit Institute of the Arts to reestablish itself after the City of Detroit threatened to sell off its holdings to fund the sagging city economy.

Although we’ve been divided, what we have in common is that we love the Museum. The citizens’ group of which I’m a part, Save the Art—Save the Museum, has repeatedly invited the trustees to use the passion ignited in the community, harness the energy of all who want the Museum to survive, and come up with a revised plan that saves the cultural treasures of the Berkshires while creating financial stability.

To mobilize this outpouring of local and national care, the Museum’s leadership must courageously acknowledge the public outcry against their plans and agree to work constructively with the voices that have emerged, particularly those art and museum professionals who have offered help.

In our interconnected world, only collaboration will bring about goodwill and the long-term enthusiastic support the Museum will need for whatever mission it adopts. Yes, the Berkshire Museum can be saved, but only by bringing back the art and engaging in genuine community dialogue.

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This article first appeared in Berkshire Trade & Commerce.


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14 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Richard Allen says:

    Opponents of the art sale by the Berkshire Museum should propose a realistic plan for solving the Museum’s financial problems before criticizing the trustees. Seems to me it is the trustees who are acting responsibly, not the”money grows on trees” opponents.

    1. Carol Diehl says:

      Suggest reading the article before commenting! No one thinks money grows on trees. The thriving non-profits in the Berkshires are sustained because they engage in the kind of aggressive fundraising the Museum has abandoned in favor of liquidation of works that could be their biggest draw. The situation now is not what it was in July when the sale was announced — there is now local and national attention that can be translated into an unprecedented opportunity for fundraising. The Rockwell, now world-famous, could be their cash cow. They are missing out on an opportunity not only to save the art, but bring the community together. With creative programming based on the history and culture of the Berkshires, the Museum could be one of of the region’s greatest assets, bringing tourism and economic prosperity to Pittsfield and beyond.

      1. Richard Allen says:

        I didn’t just read the article and its rosy optimism, I also read between the lines. When I see evidence that the opponents can actually raise millions of dollars, I’ll take them more seriously.

    2. John Townes says:

      Ricchartd Allen — So you are saying only people with Big Money at their disposal have a right to an opinion, or a right to have their ideas taken seriously?….geeze, I thought it was the Museum that is claimiong to populist champions who are defending it against the “wealthy cultuiral elitists.” ….There are plenty of experts who have offered ideas for alternatives to the sale, but the museum is ignoring them and is hell bent on its Liquidation Sale.

  2. Lauren says:

    Yes, it seems the commenter did not read the article before commenting. Carol, thank you twice!

  3. Carol Diehl says:

    Of course, those with an interest in sustaining the Museum will assist in fundraising; the experts and funding organizations are on our team. However it is, and has always been, the Museum’s responsibility, one the leadership abrogated when they abandoned their capital development campaign in favor of liquidation. Further, no one will donate to a non-profit that does not demonstrate full fiscal transparency and responsibility to the community that supports it with its tax dollars. To date, the Museum leadership has not been open about its plans and financial obligations. Let’s start by insisting that they reveal the terms of their agreement with Sotheby’s and answer the burning question of who is paying their legal bills, which are now estimated to be over a million dollars. And how is it that their endowment of $8M, as they presented it in July has shrunk, in six short months, to the $6M reported recently in the Wall Street Journal? Donations are given on trust, and that trust must be earned.

    1. Richard Allen says:

      The opposition is what`s causing legal costs to soar. Please take responsibility for the consequences of your actions.

      1. carol diehl says:

        So you know that the Museum is paying its own legal fees and not Sotheby’s? Where did you get access to this information? Please share. And do you not believe that non-profits, supported by taxpayers, should be fiscally transparent?

  4. Michael Morin says:

    Thank you for your article Carol Diehl. Having grown up in Pittsfield and spent much of my youth visiting the Berkshire Museum with friends and family, it would be a travesty to sell off the areas cultural heritage of the 40 best artworks gifted by area benefactor Zenas Crane 3d and others. Mr. Crane also left the Union Station to the people of Pittsfield but that structure was torn down during the mad craze of urban renewal in 1968. I was 9 years old at the time and feel short changed that I never got to see its architectural beauty. The Pittsfield Union Station building would be valued in today’s market at $25 million. If the Berkshire Museum Director and board of trustees think this “bold and imaginative thinking” is the only way to go, while sacrificing public trust/patronage/donated artworks/or borrowed works from other museums… maybe it’s time for a new museum director and a new board of trustees to keep this 115 year old public institution going with new creative thinking that doesn’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

  5. David Harris says:

    Carol has outlined realistic ways to raise funds and try to make something good out of this mess. I spent my entire career in not-for- profit organizations: a board exists to ensure the existence of its trust for the next generation. This board has grossly violated its trust and the museum administration has failed to lead by creating a strategic plan for fundraising that does not depend on selling assets and changing its mission. I believe the only way for the museum to move forward at this pont is with an entirely new board and director. Perhaps the Attorney General of Mass can select and lead a committee with strong community representation and a commitment to the museums original mission statement to interview and select new board members, who can then select a new director.

    1. Richard Allen says:

      I also have served on (and led) charitable organizations. The museum board is doing what you suggest:“ensuring the existence of its trust for the next generation.“ You would have them go into bankruptcy.

      1. carol diehl says:

        I would have them aggressively fundraise, not sell their assets. How did the charitable organizations you mention get their backing?

  6. Linda Cleary says:

    This article really describes why many citizens feel violated by the actions of the Museum Board. The community has discovered its trust in the judgement of a few people was misplaced. The museum did not communicate its situation if, indeed, things were dire. No news is good news, right? Everything I ever read was how great things were even as museum professionals came and went. The museum leaders balked at an influx of cash to give it time to engage the wider community,help it further flesh out the roots of its problems and a find a way to re-envision the museum for the next hundred years. They worked behind closed doors, sent away the most valuable and local historically significant pieces practically under cover of darkness because they did not trust the people on whose behalf they serve. Trust is a two-way street. Typically, when someone unintentionally violates someone’s space, as soon as they realize it, they issue an apology and listen empathetic ally to the person they have hurt. The Museum Board has taken the bully’s approach of stalking off and hiding behind closed doors. This tells me their deceptive and stealth actions were very deliberate. Were this simply an amateur botched roll-out, they would have immediately stopped to pause and reconsider that there may be alternatives. Instead of feeling blind-sided and violated people could be part of the plan to reinvigorate the museum and it could be a win-win for the museum. Yet the Board is not interested in exploring alternatives. Their eyes are on the windfall of money that will fall into the hands of money managers. They are selling the area’s cultural treasures and its history and they knew people would feel violated and don’t care even today. The reality is the area stands to lose more than its art. The trustees changed their articles of incorporation to read they could sell off anything, including the building, if the people in charge want to. They don’t care about state funding, because that opens the way to take the whole place private removing it from the public sphere all together. What began as part of the Berkshire Athenaeum, our public library, is in danger of being lost in what is beginning to look like the biggest heist in Pittsfield history.

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