Our Opinion: Healing wounds from Berkshire Museum art sale

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With last week's sale by Sotheby's auction house of works by Francis Picabia, Henry Moore and Alexander Calder from the Berkshire Museum's collection (Eagle, May 15 and 17), the legal battle to keep the the institution's art collection intact is officially over. The only question remaining is how many of the works of art designated for sale will need to be hammered off the block before the $55 million in net proceeds allowed by the state Supreme Judicial Court has been raised.

For those who lament the loss of what some Berkshirites view as the county's birthright, healing will take time, and that precious and fragile commodity — trust — needs to be reestablished between the museum and the people it serves. The sale was characterized from its announcement last July by tone-deafness, mishandling and needless secrecy on the part of the museum's leadership. It began with a lack of transparency that prevented the public from having genuine input on discussions before the board made its decision to raise sorely needed operating and capital improvement funds through the deaccession of part of the institution's patrimony.

The controversy has torn the community asunder, and the healing cannot occur without effort from both the victors and the vanquished. The difficult hour has come for those at the losing end of the battle to bind up their wounds and accept the fact that the Berkshire Museum still belongs to the people it was established to serve, and that because of the sale, odious as it may be to them, one of the county's most precious jewels can now thrive into the foreseeable future. As for the museum leadership, its responsibility will be to provide the public with a thorough and open accounting of exactly how every dollar of the new money will be spent, as well as a coherent and comprehensive view of the "New Vision" contemplated for its future mission. Without this kind of engagement, the Berkshire Museum will face a tough, if not impossible, task of restoring its special place in the hearts of children and adults who have passed through its portals to experience its treasures.

Now that the museum is on the verge of achieving its goals of a healthy endowment and funds dedicated to remodeling and pursuing its new course, it's time for the board to rebuild its relationship with the community. In order to win back the support of donors, particularly those who canceled their memberships in protest of the museum's action, it would be wise for the board of directors to bend over backward to involve the public from the outset in every important decision it makes, to welcome suggestions and be responsive to its desires.

The public, too, has responsibilities: First, it must understand that the museum is not the enemy; some thief did not make off with those irreplaceable Rockwells or Hudson River School paintings. Those who hoped for some kind of last-minute reprieve from the sale cannot let the bitterness of loss cause them to wish ill upon the institution, for without their support it will eventually wither again, making the art sale a double loss for having failed to achieve its goal.

The important thing to remember is that everyone agrees that the museum is a critical component of what makes the Berkshires such a special place to live. Without it, the county would be the lesser. The disagreements have arisen over the methodology of preserving that component, and the legal system determined that the course eventually taken was appropriate. The Berkshire Museum must now be reborn with a new mission, better and grander than it was in the past. To accomplish that goal, all parties will have to learn to work together again in a restored atmosphere of trust. That will be a heavy lift, but if everyone shows the right spirit, it's achievable.




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