Timothy Cahill: An 'alternate vision' for Berkshire Museum

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This column has been modified to correct the age of the museum.

ALBANY, N.Y..— When the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) recently came out against the the Berkshire Museum's plans to sell 40 prized artworks to fund its "New Vision," the museum trustees charged MCC with "betraying" its duty to help cultural institutions. MCC's analysis of financial statements found the museum's claims of impending fiscal meltdown exaggerated, and recommended the leadership pay its bills the way other nonprofits do, through the heavy lifting of fundraising.

The trustees' prepared statement declared this suggestion "untenable," on the grounds that the cultural agency "has not put forth a concrete or viable alternative" to selling the art.

It's not clear that the PR expert who drafted this response fully understood the implications of this claim. When the trustees are heard complaining that MCC offered no "viable alternative" to their misguided sale, do they understand that in the same breath they are admitting, in effect, "we're out of ideas?" It's embarrassing to see otherwise capable adults defend a flawed plan on the grounds of their own limited imaginations.

Museum without peer

As neighborliness is an old Berkshire virtue, however, I for one cannot ignore the plaintive call for a new "new vision" from South Street. If by "viable alternative" the trustees are hoping for the map to Ali Baba's cave of riches, I'm not much use. But I can foresee a future in which the museum, far from throwing its art overboard, uses it to raise its fortunes above anything seen in a quarter of a century.

In my "Alternate Vision," the Berkshire Museum thrives as one of the Commonwealth's great regional museums of art and culture. Its collection of artworks and artifacts created in the Berkshires and related to our history would be without peer, and the envy of small museums everywhere.

By now, of course, we can all imagine what would be on exhibit. The gems in the crown are the two masterpieces by Norman Rockwell. Equally bright, the splendid 19th-century landscapes by Bierstadt, Church and other luminaries of the Hudson River School. Equally strong is the modern art, beginning with the pair of early sculptures by Richmond resident Alexander Calder.

There's a cache of American cubists, an abstract watercolor titled "Berkshire" by John Marin, lithographs by Ellsworth Kelly, sculpture by George Rickey, and works by Pittsfielders Nancy Graves and Tom Patti. Featured artists include Gregory Crewdson and Walton Ford, and works by names less celebrated, but no less a part of the county's rich legacy.

Then, of course, Old Master paintings, decorative arts, antiquities, and Asian treasures, all telling tales about local values, aesthetic tastes, and philanthropy. Augment these with handsome artifacts of Berkshire history, then add ever-changing exhibitions of artists working here now, bearing witness as the Berkshire story develops and changes.

That's quite a museum — and the beauty of it is, it's all already here!

The key is not the objects. It's in how they are interpreted and presented, not as an outmoded "cabinet of curiosity," but as a regional collection. This "viable alternative" would attract tourists, appeal to donors, and put Pittsfield back on the map.

It's been said that the Berkshire Museum cannot "compete" with the big museum dogs of the county, Rockwell, Clark, and Mass MoCA. In this scenario, there's no competition. The museum with create a unique niche for itself and become a player.

Let the Krens and Gehrys build their palaces north of Pittsfield. They will attract more people who, having toured North Adams and Williamstown, will seek other pleasures. Paris art tourists, after seeing the Louvre, Mus e d'Orsay and Centre Pompidou, don't call it quits. They go to other, specialty museums, from the Cluny to the Orangerie. It wouldn't be long before the Berkshire Museum would be known as a "hidden gem" in foreign travel guides.

This would be a boon for the economy, and is reason enough for pursing the idea. But there is another advantage to this proposal, and more important one.

The "Alternate Vision" would save the museum from failing its highest calling, as the keeper of Berkshire cultural memory. The most far-reaching fault of the proposed "reboot" is that, in selling the 40 artworks, abandoning serious exhibitions of art and culture, and curtailing the collection of regional art, the Berkshire Museum will be guilty of the most wretched dereliction of duty.

Trustees, politicians, citizens, this is serious business. If the art is sold and the museum as we know it gutted, our history is sold and gutted with it. The county will no longer have treasury, steward and champion of this great county's culture and art. No one but the Berkshire Museum fulfills this role, or could fill the void.

Have the trustees have considered their legacy if they drop this ball? If, good people, you preside over the death of the county's collective patrimony, now and forever in time, what exactly are you saving with the "New Vision?"

Slight turn of mission

As neighboring venues have outgrown the museum in size and popularity, a revolving door of directors has attempted to "redefine" the mission to be more "relevant." But the Berkshire Museum's relevance is built into its DNA. It has always been the county's regional museum of art, culture and history. It's just never plainly defined itself as such. Make this slight turn of mission, and a lot of other things fall into place.

The museum, of course, is also the county's great depository of natural science. Throughout its 114 years, it has always had a "both-and" identity, not the false "either-or" choice forced on it by the proposed art sale The South Street building itself is designed for this dual purpose, with the science downstairs and the art above. There is no reason why the first floor could not be renovated to house a version of the "New Vision" that combines the taxidermy and miniature dioramas with the "touchscreen technological play space" supporters advocate. This interactive space would grandly serve the schoolchildren and families of Berkshire County, at a fraction of the $20 million now proposed.

Then, whenever they are ready, visitors can simply climb the stairs for an immersive experience of an alternate kind, amid the wonder and grandeur of Berkshire culture and art.

Timothy Cahill is a critic and writer who has covered art in the Berkshires for 35 years.


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