Key decisions lie ahead, Berkshire Museum trustees say

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PITTSFIELD — Trustees of the Berkshire Museum head into their first board meeting since selling artworks at a "turning point," having raised more than $42 million to ensure their 115-year-old institution's survival.

But big decisions lie ahead.

Have they banked enough money? Should they tweak the plan rolled out last summer?

In a group interview, five trustees said top questions include whether to sell more works from their collection and whether to tackle a major renovation of their 39 South St. building, including creation of an atrium that would remake the entrance to the historic building outlined amid fanfare last July.

On Wednesday, the citizens group Save the Art-Save the Museum called on trustees to halt art sales "and return the rest of the art held in the public trust that belongs to the people of Berkshire County."

In a 45-minute phone interview with The Eagle, trustees fielded questions about a range of issues, past and future, days after pledging to be more open about their oversight in the face of what they termed "relentless" opposition.

When asked about the agenda for Thursday's board meeting, Elizabeth McGraw, its president, said the top question is whether to proceed with sales, as allowed under an agreement with Attorney General Maura Healey.

"I can't tell you the answer. I know how I would respond to that, but we need to have some information presented to the board," McGraw said.

Other highlights from the interview:

- Trustees declined to say who negotiated the museum's consignment contract with Sotheby's for art sales or to say who paid months of legal bills as the museum defended itself in two lawsuits and underwent a monthslong state investigation.

- One trustee said no one affiliated with the museum is personally receiving money as a result of the transactions being handled by Sotheby's.

- Though proceeds from recent auctions and private sales came in under estimates, trustees do not believe they could have taken steps to improve the financial outcome, pointing to uncertainties in the art market, the fact that a November auction was halted by a judge and the smaller body of museum works presented to buyers in May.

- Trustees said their decision to hold off on restarting a capital campaign until 2019 was made because the museum is not ready to spell out its building plans, as board discussion continues.

`Fully committed'

Though continued art sales and the extent of renovations are up for board discussion, trustees indicated they are wholly on board with the principles laid out nearly a year ago: the need to create a financial cushion against deficits; performing repairs to the building; and embracing a "new vision" regarding exhibits that uses interactive technology to inform visitors about science, natural history and art, including use of works from its collection.

"The board is fully committed to carrying out those three aspects," McGraw said.

Ethan Klepetar, the board's vice president, said he and fellow trustees no longer face "hypotheticals," having succeeded in raising needed money.

"It's a real turning point now. Now we can sit down and get into the weeds and figure out our next steps," said Klepetar, a trustee since 2011.

He said the goal remains that of raising the full $55 million allowed under the museum's agreement with Healey, which would require additional sales. But that will be on the board's agenda to discuss.

"Clearly, we're not there yet," he said, adding that the answer will come when the full board engages in "vibrant discussions."

For what might be the first time, trustees indicated publicly that they will take a fresh look at the atrium project.

In the past year of debate over art sales, some have questioned the advisability of that project, given how profoundly it would change the 1903 building. One trustee interviewed separately warned fellow members that community opposition could leave the issue of art sales as merely "round one."

Is the atrium project getting a fresh look, trustees were asked.

"I think so," McGraw said.

Klepetar added: "We have to revisit everything. Everything is open for discussion except for what we've already learned through our intense community engagement about who our museum serves and what is the best way to serve that community going forward."

In their open letter, trustees referred to what they termed "ambitious plans for repairing and re-imagining the museum, respectful of its more than century-old building."

The word "respectful" appeared to some readers to suggest that officials were rethinking the atrium project. The letter went on to say trustees wanted to proceed in a way that results in updating its facilities "to contemporary museum standards."

They also referred to a desire to "create a platform for exciting new experiences based on community input, true to our mission, and financially sustainable."

That mention of costs can be interpreted as concern about the typically high price tag of multimedia installations.

New approach

Trustees indicated in the interview that whether or not a major architectural reimagining of the museum takes place, they intend to employ new multimedia techniques, to some extent.

"We'll look at all of that in our upcoming meetings," said David Glodt, a trustee since 2013. "How much of that you can do."

"All museums are moving in that direction, in the finest art museums," Glodt said. "So we'll take a positive look at what we can do as a museum that best serves the community."

To shape future interactive exhibits, trustees said they will rely on in-house expertise but might bring in outside help. They pointed to the popularity of the Curiosity Incubator space that was set up as a kind of test run of a new interactive approach.

McGraw said the exhibit produces a lot of "touch time" for patrons. "It says that people enjoyed it. We think it works," she said.

In their May 31 open letter, headlined "Berkshire Museum Outlines the Road Ahead," trustees vowed to "secure the museum's future with a commitment to transparency, cooperation, and outreach."

When asked how they will seek to increase community outreach, trustees noted that they continue to meet "business partners," including in a session a month ago. They said major funders and supporters have been kept up to date on the museum's progress.

"It's all about communicating and talking," McGraw said. "It's never stopped."

Trustees, in response to a question, did not indicate they plan to convene meetings with people who opposed the art sales. Klepetar said trustees earlier reached out to members of Save the Art-Save the Museum and held some individual conversations.

"It was not well-received," Klepetar said. "But that doesn't mean we're not still open to a conversation. We seem to meet continual opposition with a certain segment of the population."

Klepetar said he believes the "vast majority" of museum patrons support the board's actions.

In their letter, trustees spoke to the criticism that their plan received from some.

"We recognize there are those who believe the museum has not adequately provided information or sought input," the letter read. "While we have worked hard to do both, we are moving forward with a renewed commitment to outreach and open communications as we consider the road ahead and work to bring our community together.

On the issue of the atrium, the letter specifically says the museum will consider "community input."

In the interview, trustees did not outline a plan to solicit or gather comments from the public, aside from efforts they already make.

When asked, McGraw said the board would consider bringing a member of Save the Art into its ranks, but noted that the panel uses a selection process.

"We have quite a long list of prospective people," she said.

Other financial issues

Klepetar, the board's vice president, said flatly that despite widespread speculation, no one associated with the museum stands to benefit personally from recent auctions and sales.

"No. There's no finder's fee or anything like that for hooking us up with Sotheby's," he said. "We're all volunteers. None of us is getting a financial gain from the contract with Sotheby's from our relationship with Sotheby's."

When asked whether that includes attorney Mark S. Gold, who advised the board on the legality of the sales, or Executive Director Van Shields, Klepetar said: "Yes."

On the question of who is paying the museum's legal fees, Klepetar spoke for the trustees in the interview.

"We can't comment on our private agreements with our attorneys. No comment on that issue," he said.

WilmerHale's legal team continues to work for the museum, providing counsel on its interactions with Healey's office as well as with a pending action before the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

Trustees said that on May 31, their attorneys provided a report to Healey's office. A public records request by The Eagle for that document is pending.

Steve Bayne, the board's treasurer, said the museum has also recently filed a required report with the IRS. Nonprofits must file Form 990 detailing their finances.

A request to the museum to provide that document is also pending.

The museum shifted last year from operating on a fiscal year ending June 30 to a calendar year closing Dec. 31.

Bayne and other trustees said they took that step because the museum holds major fundraisers in July.

"It was just bad timing," McGraw said.

The museum's gala, a key fundraiser, will be held July 27 this year.

Wendy Gordon, a trustee since 2012, said one of the summer fundraisers, a wine auction held every other year, might be revamped.

"We're evaluating whether that format continues to make sense. We do intend to have a gala in 2019," she said. "We want to keep it fresh and keep people interested in coming."

As for the timing of a renewed capital campaign, McGraw said that while fundraising for operations has continued, any request for donations to building needs must be presented along with clear plans.

"When you have a capital campaign, you want to have a specific thing to reach out to the community for," she said. "I think we need to formalize that a bit more."


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