Elizabeth McGraw: Museum's tough decision assures survival, growth

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There is nothing more troubling to the Board of Trustees and staff of the Berkshire Museum than to upset others in our beloved Berkshires, a community that we all care deeply about. Your shock, sadness and anger are understandable, as is your enthusiasm, anticipation and interest in our future. The board felt those same emotions when we concluded a retreat last year and realized that, in order to ensure that the museum will continue to serve the community for the next hundred years, the board must decide to sell some of the museum's art. It was an agonizing decision.

We appreciate the outpouring of support and concern, but the vitriol that some have expressed has been disheartening. The other 21 board members and I are volunteers. I never imagined that we would have to choose between the institution's survival and selling artwork. So let me please restate some facts on how we got here.

Lost revenue sources

If you can't tell by now, our business model is NOT working. We have consistently shared that the Berkshire Museum's board has been aware of the financial struggles for many years. The annual operating deficit has been slowly building over the last 30 years as the museum lost its major patron.

Meanwhile, General Electric and other industries have left Pittsfield, leaving a major gap in corporate support. Additionally, the non-profit sector has grown disproportionate to the population that needs to support those organizations. The result is now an annual structural operating deficit, "structural" because it has persisted. This is not new for museums, as most have a structural operating deficit that is normally offset by earnings from an endowment or government. (We shared our financial information with The Eagle and an editor and reporter followed up on questions with our auditor, a firm that does the majority of non-profit auditing in the Berkshires.)

We have addressed this problem with tactics such as increasing membership and annual appeal pledges, ample grant writing, awesome gala revenue, generous corporate sponsorships, and relevant programming. The store was also reopened in an effort to generate income. But, the harsh realities of having an insufficient endowment can result in layoffs, episodic-at-best compensation increases for the staff, hiring freezes, program cancellations, etc. Cutting hours and closing one day a week does not make a dent in our operating budget. And, slashing programs is NOT an option for us because our programming has become increasingly impactful on the county's kids: we delivered 28,000+ experiences during the school year.

As the deficit climbed over a million dollars, in 2015 we explored the possibility of a merger with Hancock Shaker Village. After extensive consultation, it was determined that a partnership was not in the best interests of the organizations. What this study did accomplish, however, was to clearly illustrate to the board that the clock was ticking and the museum would run out of money if a dramatic change did not happen while there are still a few years left to manage this change.

The Board hired TDC, among the most reputable non-profit business planners in Massachusetts, and EXP, a national interpretive planning and design firm, to help make the museum a thriving and a more relevant institution even in the face of declining population and serious economic problems in this county. We engaged over 400 individuals from our community to analyze and understand how best to serve them, out of which came our New Vision. We asked these people to help us shape our plans, not to endorse them (although many have, publicly). To all those who helped us with this phase, we thank you.

The board and staff of the museum learned, questioned and dreamed in these meetings. We discussed, debated, and listened to each other. We knew that we did not want to shutter our doors and that the community values what the museum offers. Our mission of bringing people together for experiences that spark creativity and innovative thinking by making inspiring educational connections among art, history, and natural science was central to our process and has not changed. In fact our New Vision doubles down on our mission by aligning the museum to carry it out fully in all the ways we serve.

At the end of the day the board realized that there simply are not enough major resources in this community to meet our financial needs. So, we had to look inward. We seriously considered the consequences. We are not the first museum to be in this position and we studied and learned from those cases.

I wish I could say that we are surprised by the reaction of the professional museum associations. We are not. The staff and board have built those consequences into our new operating model and developed a programming strategy that remains independent and draws from our own collections of 40,000+ objects of science, history, and ART. We are already forging deeper collaborations with organizations and individuals, not just in the arts but also in education, social services, and other local sectors.

Pausing not an option

We understand why some are protesting the sale of those 40 beautiful pieces of art. Some individuals are frustrated because they think that a pause in the sale would lead to a different financial path somehow changing this harsh reality. The board has spent over two years exploring that very thing. However, the consequence of a delay with the auction could be that the museum may close even sooner. Importantly, the sooner the museum reaches its New Vision, the sooner it can help respond to community challenges identified in our planning process.

Please take a moment and imagine this 114-year-old building empty, all of its 40,000+ objects no longer in Pittsfield, no children marveling at Wally before entering the museum for a Saturday morning program, denying the community the memorable, educational, and often transformative experiences that a museum offers its community. That is a reality that the board will not accept. When we listen to these hard truths, when we are open to facts instead of rumor and innuendo, only then are we equipped to confront the harshest reality: if we do not transform the museum into a sustainable, thriving institution, it will eventually close. Our community is changing and so must the museum.

I hope that together, our Berkshire community, extending from Clarksburg to Ashley Falls, from Hancock to Otis, will help us create the bold new future for a sustainable community museum. The sale of art is not the goal line; the board must be prudent in managing our new resources, and we will be. That is our commitment to you. We look forward to continuing to serve you and the Berkshire community of tomorrow.

Elizabeth McGraw is president, Board of Trustees, Berkshire Museum.


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