Kevin Sprague: An appeal to Berkshire Museum's board

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LENOX — Dear members on the Board of Trustees of the Berkshire Museum:

I have had the privilege of working with many of you on different boards and initiatives in the Berkshires over the last 20 years. When I look at the list of members of the board I am impressed by the assemblage of respected community leaders represented there.

Like you, I have been a board member of institutions during times of challenge. Like you, I have participated in long planning processes. Like you, I have raised my hand to vote on risky issues and had the leadership of those boards urge me to join in a unanimous front.

Like you, I have participated, listened, thought critically, agonized over my decision, and still managed to vote for something that I should have voted against once the dust settled.

I am reaching out to you in your role as board members because I think it is important to understand that you still wield the power to change your minds.

Here are my points.

*:The ethics: Regardless of the legal machinations that have occurred to allow the museum to sell the artwork, the ethical point is clear — the collections of the museum belong fundamentally to the public and are held in trust by the museum (and museums around the world). To convey any part of the collection out of public ownership and into private hands violates not only the charter of the Berkshire Museum but the rules by which all museums are organized.

*:De-accessioning a collection from a public institution has to be done in a manner that allows the objects to remain in public view. The rules and examples for doing this in the museum world are well established and clear.

* In the event that a museum needs to de-accession some of its collection because it is not relevant to the mission of the museum there needs to be a baseline for measuring this. The relevance of the Norman Rockwell paintings, and the Calders, in particular, is unassailable. Gifts by prominent Berkshire-based artists, expressly given to be in the public trust, and full of provenance and meaning to the community, need to be preserved as public property — even if this means conveyance to another appropriate institution.

* If the Berkshire Museum has determined through lengthy review and process that it is time to re-define its purpose, audience and mission, then that is an appropriate step for any institution to take. Nevertheless, it does not relieve the organization of its past obligations towards the collection and the community.

* By its attempt to monetize public property the museum has violated its charter as a public trust. The American Museum Association has made it clear that it intends (or has already) revoked the Berkshire Museum's accreditation. The Berkshire Museum is now a museum in name only. This fact alone should give the board pause.

Undermines Rockwell legacy

* There is irony in the steps taken to monetize the collection. The most valuable works going to auction are the Rockwell paintings — ironically valuable because another Berkshire institution has focused for more than 40 years on celebrating the talents and works of this remarkable Berkshire artist. To sell the paintings at auction shows a disrespect for the hard work of many people over the decades to preserve Rockwell's legacy and make his work accessible to millions. As a community that enjoys the benefits of a world-class cultural calendar, we rise together. The present plan flies in the face of this community identity.

* Auction is the last-resort tactic for selling property under duress. An auction shows that the Berkshire Museum is interested primarily in expediency. This is a deliberate grab for cash.

* The plan is being presented as an end-game. If successful in the sale the museum intends to never again be dependent on any form of development funds or public funds. Fundraising is also about community engagement — a community that participates in the health of an organization is a community that cares. This plan is fundamentally isolationist.

* Analysis of the public financial documents reveal that although the museum has run deficits under the present leadership the situation is not dire. There is certainly time to consider alternatives and to cultivate and develop the necessary support to allow the museum to thrive into the future.

* Any board member of the museum should ask why, after 140 years of operation during wars, the Great Depression, etc. is it is appropriate at this particular moment to approve this dramatic, panic-driven fire-sale. The board has been misled. That the community has become divided over this issue is a signal to any board member that the plan is wrong and needs review.

* The charter of the current board is clear — it must convene immediately, suspend the sale, and invite dialogue, mediation and counsel. Regardless of whether or not the Berkshire Museum should update its mission and purpose, this current course is a panic-driven rush to raise the maximum cash in as short a period of time as possible by the unethical, deliberate and callous disbursement of public property.

Let me be clear: I believe that yes, the museum should reposition itself and its collection to be more relevant to the population it serves. Frankly, that's not difficult to do and certainly doesn't cost $40 million. For a great example of an institution that has built itself up from nothing around community programming in STEM, I encourage you to look at the Exploratorium (www.exploratorium.edu/)

My issue is that the museum does not have THE RIGHT — despite a hastily modified corporate charter — to remove from public ownership and view the objects slated for sale. The Board has the ETHICAL OBLIGATION to dispose of those objects in a manner as allows them to remain in the public view in perpetuity.

Kevin Sprague is the owner and creative director of Studio Two, which hosts and manages the Berkshire Museum website. He is a resident of Lenox and Miami.




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