Phil Coleman: Museum critics are stuck in past

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LENOX — On first blush, the Berkshire Museum issue seemed somewhat complex to me. I am a ninth generation American, a 20-year resident of the Berkshires, and my wife and I are members of the Berkshire County Art and Antique Dealers Association. Our family owns a small business in Stockbridge and we love the Berkshires very much. We have active memberships in or sponsorships of many of the cultural institutions here. We chose to live here over anywhere else in the world, and we have traveled widely. My bona fides as an arts patron, history buff, and respecter of tradition are very strong. My public service to the Berkshires is well known to many.

But I am here to tell you that I am a very positive supporter of the Berkshire Museum board of directors, Executive Director Van Shields, and the overall vision they have for carrying the museum forward. Let me state clearly that I am not a board member of the museum, have no "skin" in this game, and have not been put up to write this op-ed by anyone associated with the museum, or any other organization. This is strictly on my own accord.

For those who know me, taking a pro-growth stand in favor of a project like this should come as no surprise. I have consistently supported every major project from our various cultural institutions, as well as hospitality, residential, and vacation venues that have come on the drawing board in the past decade. I believe there can be a great future for the Berkshires, and that we need real economic development to transform us, especially in central Berkshire and Pittsfield. But I am always dismayed at the chorus of naysayers who stand up in opposition to every project, whether merited or not.

In this case, I believe the opposition is misguided at best, and malicious at worst. There is this palpable aura of stubborn Yankee obstinance about these paintings that is a knee-jerk reaction to change and seems to me poorly thought out at best. In reality, I would also guess that not 5 percent of the folks braying loudly about "losing" these paintings could even identify them if they were shown in a group. Could you?

Look forward, not backward

The "Save Our Art" campaign unfortunately doesn't sound very much different to me, either, than "Save Our Statues" does coming from Southerners desperately trying to hold onto their "heritage" from ages past. This obsession with the culture of the dead white male from eons ago seems stuck in a former time. Our past is not all peaches and cream — here in the Berkshires there was plenty of subjugation of Native Americans and the harsh imposition of white culture, not to mention the holding of African American slaves, a rigid class system in the Gilded Age that exploited poor locals, and the exclusion of Jews for decades from local institutions. Honor all that? I don't think so.

I see a Berkshire future that is markedly mixed as to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation — in fact everything. Why should we glorify this past so much and not look to the future through different eyes? Certainly people here are not overtly racist, but I sense this undertone in a subtle way. I don't even think people are aware of this but just think about it for a minute.

I'll take my chances on the present and the future, rather than the past, given a choice. We're gaining much, much more than we're losing with this project. Further, it does not take a crystal ball to see that exclusionary, elitist, preventative attitudes like this only discourage investment, run our children off to Boston or wherever, and keep the Berkshires as the economic backwater of the state that we unfortunately are. I for one am tired of having to explain this to many of the privileged, the rich, the retired, and the snobbish who hold the Berkshires back every time. We cannot be a private rest area that will always just "stay the same." People need jobs, whether professional, trades, or service. We need an economy that is diverse and vibrant. I don't know how to put it any more simply or urgently.

The last thing I would like to mention is that I have served on not-for-profit boards in the county for almost all of those 20 years that I have lived here, mostly in financial positions. I can assure you there is not a fount of money waiting to be uncorked from myriads of donors writing millions of dollars in checks. That is completely ludicrous, given the demographics of our population and the volume of not-for-profits here all trying to raise money. Please stop making that argument in your letters to the editor. The sale of art is a very logical answer, especially given the outrageous escalation in its price. The museum would be very wise to fund its growth this way, and very foolish indeed to cave in to any notion of not selling these paintings in order to embark on a fishing expedition of fundraising. We will all be dead and gone, as will the museum, while waiting for this to happen.

Phil Coleman is a board member of 1Berkshire and is a patron of the arts, museums, theaters and other cultural institutions in the Berkshires.




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