CONNECTIONS: Failure may beget future success for 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.”
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.”
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?
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.