Berkshire Museum seeks to 'regain public trust and confidence'

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PITTSFIELD — Leaders of the Berkshire Museum, acknowledging lost trust amid "a bitter debate" over its art sales, called in an open letter Thursday for a fresh start with the community.

A week after auctions and private sales pushed proceeds well above $42 million, members of the Pittsfield museum's board appealed in an unsigned letter for adversaries to become allies in their mutual interest.

"We are committed to doing so, transparently, cooperatively, and thoughtfully, to regain public trust and confidence where it has been lost," the trustees say. "We urge others to join us in that spirit."

Trustees vow to seek advice anew from museum supporters and to build that into plans on how to proceed, as an unidentified outside consultant is brought in to help the board shape a new business plan.

Specific steps might not be clear until year's end, the letter says, after which the museum plans to restart a capital campaign. In the meantime, it might put additional works up for sale to secure the $55 million it is allowed to raise.

The 1,200-word statement does not specifically mention the "new vision," the project hailed by officials last July as a key feature in the museum's transformation. The new vision was to involve a new emphasis on multimedia programming in the areas of science and nature, as well as art.

While a description of the new vision project remains on the museum's website, it is absent from Thursday's message.

But Carol Bosco Baumann, a museum spokeswoman, said Thursday that the new vision remains on the table.

"Particularly the interpretive approach to the museum's collection," she said in response to questions. "These are goals defined after a great deal of community outreach."

Carol Diehl, a member of the community group Save the Art-Save the Museum, questioned the credibility of the museum's call for openness.

"They are promising transparency but aren't answering our questions," she said, referring to issues that she and co-author Rosemary Starace raised in a May 3 op-ed in The Eagle.

In the commentary, the two women asked the museum a list of questions. They ranged from legal costs, to reasons for its recurring deficit, to a $2 million decline in its endowment value in six months.

"How do they plan to serve the community?" Diehl asked in a phone interview Thursday. "They are not telling us in any detail what their mission is."

Though trustees say their wish is to close community divisions, they note "there are still those in the community relentless in their opposition to the museum ."

Covering gaps

The letter from trustees says proceeds from art sales to date will be plowed into an endowment to ensure the museum's future, after years of recurring deficits.

Those budget gaps became, for Attorney General Maura Healey and the Supreme Judicial Court, the most persuasive part of the museum's case to sell art, over objections raised in two lawsuits and ethical principles held by most institutions in the museum world.

In addition to tucking money away to guarantee the museum's future, trustees said they intend "to direct remaining funds to needed building improvements and the plan to better integrate the museum's collection in a way consistent with our unchanging mission."

In what could be another shift, the letter does not specifically mention efforts to transform the 39 South St. institution's entry into a multistory atrium, which had been part of earlier plans.

Rather, it suggests officials might be rethinking changes they would make in the physical plant.

"Financial decision making by the Board of Trustees will focus on defining priorities," the letter says, going on to mention concern about the historic property, built in 1903.

"We have put forward ambitious plans for repairing and re-imagining the museum, respectful of its more than century-old building," it says.

When asked if the atrium project is dead, Bosco Baumann said trustees have not yet decided.

"As the letter indicates, we will take a careful and fresh review of what is possible and the board will focus on defining priorities," she said.

In a section of the letter titled "What's next," trustees break down how the allowable proceeds of $55 million would be deployed.

The explanation raises further doubts about the likelihood of a major building renovation.

"First and foremost, ample proceeds will go into an endowment to generate sustainable operating funds for the museum," the letter says. "Anything more than $55 million will be placed in a designated fund to support our art collection."

That use of proceeds is a condition set by the museum's agreement with Healey.

The letter goes on, "The remainder will be used for building repairs and exhibit upgrades, to be designed and determined consistent with the integrative goals of our plan."

The wording "building repairs and exhibit upgrades" does not appear to extend to a wholesale renovation needed to create the planned atrium.

Any changes pursued by the museum, officials say, will be designed to get the building in line with museum standards and to "create a platform for exciting new experiences based on community input, true to our mission, and financially sustainable."

Critics of the new vision have questioned its cost and suitability to the museum. Others have expressed fears that the atrium project would mar the historic property.

Missed targets

The letter admits that the museum fell short on its financial goals in a series of May auctions at Sotheby's and in two private sales. Trustees said they plan to consider additional sales of artworks.

The museum's agreement with Healey, approved in April by a justice with the SJC in Boston, allows it to raise $55 million through art sales.

The museum has not revealed how much it received for Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop" painting, purchased in April by the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in California.

But trustees say that keeping Rockwell's masterwork available to the public, a condition set by Healey's office, cost it dearly.

"We pulled the painting from auction and agreed to accept a significantly lower price through a private sale that keeps this important work in the public eye," the letter says.

Sotheby's had placed a $20 million to $30 million bid range on the work when it was headed for a November auction, before that sale was halted amid litigation.

Since the auction did not take place, thus preventing the art market from assigning a current value, it is unclear what figure the museum obtained as a comparison.

Bosco Baumann declined to say how the museum concluded that it received less for "Shuffleton's" through its sale to Lucas rather than by selling through auction — an option it lost in its agreement with Healey's office.

With new money in hand, trustees said they will hire an independent consultant to help them find an investment firm able to advise the museum on financial strategies.

Bosco Baumann said that consultant will also help the board devise a new business plan for the museum as a whole, as it moves in 2019 to restart a capital fundraising campaign.

The description of that consultant's work on a new business plan offers another indication that plans outlined last July might be in flux.

Bosco Baumann said that other than bringing in that consultant, no staff changes are planned.

Trustees said they plan to refine their plans over the summer. By fall, after gathering new views from the community, as part of a renewed outreach effort, trustees expect to have a timeline for further work, the letter says.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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