Derek Gentile: Berkshire Museum decision to sell art was not reached lightly

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PITTSFIELD — The first museum I ever visited was the Berkshire Museum, when I was in junior high school.

It was a class trip and, in fact, there were other classes from around the county, and for all I know, beyond the county.

So my major revelation wasn't really anything I saw that was part of the museum. It was that junior high school girls from Pittsfield were pretty cute. I'm sorry. My level of sophistication was, as anyone who knew me then will tell you, depressingly low.

But the point is, it was the first of many trips. So it would pain me to see the Berkshire Museum, as an institution, fail.

I admit, the decision to sell off some 40 works of art to pay for the renovation of the museum and fund an endowment pains me as well. I know it also pains my friend Laurie Norton Moffatt, the director of the Norman Rockwell Museum. She is someone whose wisdom I value greatly. If she doesn't think this is a good idea, I have no reason to disagree.

But I'll bet it also pained the board of directors of the museum. I doubt very much that when this decision came up for a vote, anyone at that meeting said, "So we're finally getting rid of those dang Rockwells? I'm in!"

No, I don't think so.

There are some critics who believe that more aggressive fundraising might solve this. That may be true. But the museum people apparently examined this issue for two years, and discussed it with focus groups and community members.

I agree that the facility needs modernization. I've been to museums that are more interactive. And darned if it doesn't work like a charm. Visit the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. They have a room of old-style baskets (including a replica of the original peach basket) in a gallery. People can stand about 12 feet away and pick up a basketball from a rack and shoot at the baskets. Every time I go, that gallery is full.

The Hall of Fame also has small targets hanging from the ceiling that represent how high Michael Jordan can jump, or LeBron James. And kids (and adults) are encouraged to jump and see if you can touch the targets. I didn't try, but a lot of kids did. There are other things, but it struck me when I first visited the Hoop Hall that those exhibits were pretty cool.

In Boston, I remember visiting the Museum of Science when it had a Lord of the Rings exhibit. You could stand next to an Ent (the fictional tree being in the series) and you could also heft Aragorn's sword.

That's the way the museum world works these days. Interactive and educational. Couple this with the fact that the Berkshire Museum is vying for tourist dollars with Tanglewood, the Clark, Chesterwood, the Norman Rockwell Museum and about 100 more nonprofits in the county, and it's a pretty competitive field.

Look, I don't think it's anything but awful to sell off masterpieces by local artists. But we've been told that this is the best, or at least the fastest way, to ensure the museum remains viable. And I will hold the people in charge responsible if these upgrades are implemented and it's not a better museum.

But unless someone comes up with $60 million, there don't appear to be particularly viable alternatives.
Derek Gentile can be reached at dgentile@berkshireeagle.com or @DerekGentile. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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