Alan Chartock | I, Publius: 'Compromise' on art dispute fails the smell test

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The Berkshire Museum will be allowed to sell, or "deaccession," some of its most important paintings in order to survive, or so it says.

A huge number of people in the Berkshires are very disappointed, and that's putting it mildly. Arts organizations all over the United States have checked in on the issue and voiced their severe disapproval.

The museum says that if it hadn't been allowed to sell these paintings, it would have been doomed. That, of course, is just wrong. The museum could have been saved with a proper board, proper management and proper fundraising.

I think the sale of the paintings is a lot like the beginning of a bad habit. Once you get started, you really can't stop. Time will tell. Under a very complicated agreement with the Attorney General's Office, steps have been taken to ensure that won't happen. To that I would say, let me show you a bridge in Brooklyn that you might be interested in buying.

Let's face it: The museum has virtually sold off its children. They spewed out some questionable verbiage about changing their mission. Their top manager pulled the same thing in an earlier posting and Larry Parnass documented the story in a series of articles that really ought to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Attorney General Maura Healey, perhaps smelling the political risks, checked in and did a long running "investigation" that has now resulted in a so-called "compromise." Some compromise! The museum can now sell its art, including the big one, "Shuffleton's Barbershop," which will end up being on display for up to two years at the Norman Rockwell Museum, whose top honcho had been one of the biggest opponents of the sale.

This newspaper first wrote an editorial endorsing the museum plan, but then did the right thing and, perhaps seeing the popular opposition, thoroughly explored the idea. Nevertheless, when the so-called compromise was announced, the newspaper featured most of the top politicians in the city prominently endorsing the announced solution.

This was one of the clearest cases of a groundswell of popular unhappiness that I have ever seen since arriving in the Berkshires in 1971. It was as if the skies had opened up.

People were really ticked off and they wanted to be heard. There was a letter in this paper almost every day. There were meetings called and organizations formed, including "Save the Art," that used a lot of people hours to make the case. And yet the board of trustees went to the high powered lawyers and pushed and pushed.

The local judge fell into line with the Pittsfield power elite and ruled that the museum could do as it wished. The Rockwell kids made the case that when their father gave his precious paintings to the community he so loved he did it so they could see them. The court ruled that they had no standing.

Hey, one more piece of proof that the suckers don't get an even break. I'll never really understand the local politicians who lined up to kiss the behinds of the museum elite. I just don't get it. Was it about possible campaign contributions? What in the world could have turned these otherwise good politicians who keep telling us that they serve the people to do the bidding of a group of well-heeled trustees? Some are predictable but some, like our otherwise excellent state Sen. Adam Hinds, who had been calling for compromise, make me really scratch my head.

I think that it's fair to say that I know something about fundraising. The people will stand behind good projects. The art could have been saved. The museum is a good thing. We need it and most of us want it, but this is a pathetic outcome and very disheartening.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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