Barbara Palmer: Thoughts on the Berkshire Museum tragedy

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TYRINGHAM — As a former executive director of a small Berkshire County museum, I feel the pain of my colleagues at the Berkshire Museum. It is a huge challenge to find the funds to operate year after year. On average, art museums earn about 15 percent of their annual budget and have to fund-raise the other 85 percent. Every year.

But we do it. We brainstorm innovative programs, we collaborate with others, we work incredibly hard to serve our mission, we build connections with our communities and we nurture them.

I have followed the tragedy on South Street closely and have some thoughts I would like to share.

* The Berkshire Museum serves families, youths, schools and young children of Pittsfield and the Berkshires better than any other. I love taking kids to explore dinosaurs, Berkshire fauna, curiosities, amphibians and ART at the museum, an introduction to the wonders of the world. In my mind, there is nothing wrong with the traditional mission of the museum. What is wrong is the way we fund such an important cultural and educational institution. In most first world countries, the Berkshire Museum would be funded by the state and city to serve its population. Pittsfield is in no position to help, but what about the state? Could it be time to set up more funding for key cultural facilities in economically challenged regions?

* Museums must evolve to serve their community as the needs change. I applaud the Berkshire Museum staff and board for taking on this task before they are out of money. Regarding the criticism about lack of openness of this process, it's clear to me that they needed to develop their plans away from the limelight. A nonprofit that signals it is in trouble and is searching for a plan hurts itself more by scaring away it's most important funders. Keeping advisors in the dark about implications of their choices, though, is less ideal.

Science staff key

* The New Vision of the Berkshire Museum scares me. Great science museums usually have research scientists on staff. The others tend to have design-heavy displays that are expensive to purchase, expensive to maintain, can be more show than substance, and tend to be obsolete rather quickly. I often find them depressing and not inspiring to children. As an asset, they don't hold their value well. Are there good ones? Yes, but the museum hasn't shown details or named an institution as a model. Without science staff, this is a reach.

Regarding the building renovations, losing the film and performance space as well as historic interiors for a large atrium seems a high price. I have seen and learned too little about these plans — both programmatic and facility — to be able to support them yet.

* Selling the art is a tragic mistake. Treasures on a par with these will never return to the people of Pittsfield. A draw for future audiences and donors would be forever lost.

Others have already explained the ethical breach and negative precedent of national impact the sale represents. Ethical breaches that turn the museum into a pariah in the museum world should be a very last resort. As Alan Chartock wrote last week, Pittsfield will regret this. I hope the board will reconsider before it is too late.

But without a sale, how can the Berkshire Museum survive and thrive? That is the multimillion dollar question, of course. Smart and dedicated people have tried to raise the needed funds. I am no smarter (and have struggled with structural deficits myself), but I think it can be done. Consider the following steps:

Engage community

* Harness the passion. Take advantage of the tremendous publicity for the collection and the museum to launch a no-holds-barred capital campaign. Enlist the art world experts that have engaged in this debate to help. Use the momentum, continue the publicity blitz. Engage the passionate community members — make it their project too.

* Meet with the Massachusetts Cultural Council and all Berkshire County representatives to ask for their help. Press for increased state funding. Massachusetts is not among the most generous states, despite the density of cultural and historic treasures and relative wealth. We can do better, not just for the Berkshire Museum. Build alliances with other community museums. Encourage letter writing campaigns.

* Focus on programs that connect to the broader community. Hire a curator, if at all possible. To thrive, the Berkshire Museum needs to continue its great work for Pittsfield families and children AND have programs that inspire and draw in the larger community.

This is a large task for a stretched staff. The community has promised to help you. Please take us up on it.

Barbara Palmer is the former executive director of the Bidwell House Museum in Monterey and a member of The Eagle's advisory board.


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