Berkshire Museum: Ex-employee says Shields spoke early of art sales

BEN GARVER — THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE Berkshire Museum Executive Director Van Shields, seen here in July announcing a $60 million plan to reinvent the museum, reportedly had the idea of "monetizing" the institution's art holdings since soon after arriving in 2011.

PITTSFIELD — The executive director of the Berkshire Museum began to speak of "monetizing" the institution's art holdings soon after arriving in 2011, according to a former collections manager.

"He'd ask, 'Why do we need all these Japanese block prints?' " said Leanne Hayden, who now works at a museum in Maine, said of Van W. Shields.

"Van came in and started talking about monetizing the collection. I heard it from him the whole time," Hayden told The Eagle. "You just don't use that phrase. It was the first time I'd heard it from a museum person. He did use it from the get-go."

Hayden left the Pittsfield museum in 2014 after a decade of service, first as a collections assistant and then as manager of the 2,395-piece fine art collection.

Hayden said in an interview from her new workplace, the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk, Maine, that she was surprised to hear Shields speak of "monetizing," since collections are not viewed as sources of revenue under accepted museum principles.

Shields was hired in 2011 to replace Stuart Chase.

While it isn't unusual for museums to sell works that are in poor condition, do not fit a museum's mission or are not viewed often, proceeds from those sales must be applied to building the collection in other ways, not for operations or capital projects, according to rules set forth by American Alliance of Museums.

"We do not comment on the social media posts of former employees," Shields said in a statement, in response to a request for comment.

He added, "As has been the case with other museums, in order to secure Berkshire Museum's future as a leading cultural institution, deaccessioning has always been a possibility."

In a move that's drawn criticism, the Berkshire Museum hopes to sell 40 works from its collection at auction, starting in November, through Sotheby's in New York City. The auction is expected to raise an estimated $50 million.

The museum's trustees plan to add $40 million to its current $8.6 million endowment, pursue a $10 million capital campaign and allocate $20 million to renovations of its 114-year-old home at 39 South St.

Museum leaders say their New Vision plan, shaped over two years with the help of focus groups, is driven by a dire need to shore up its finances at a time of slumping financial support from the community.

Over the same two-year period, trustees have been considering selling the works — a practice known as deaccessioning.

But the art sale has been slammed by museum officials from around the country, as well as many local patrons. The action led the museum to sever its four-year relationship with the Smithsonian Institution, The Eagle reported Wednesday.

Hayden first reported Shields' comments about "monetizing" the museum's collection in a reply this week to a Facebook post by Grier Horner, a former Eagle staff member.

"At the time, I didn't think he would go thru with it," she said of Shields in that online comment. "I thought it was all talk and of course balked at the idea."

Hayden told The Eagle when Shields questioned her about the museum's Japanese block prints, she told him they were important and valuable pieces of the collection.

In her years with the museum, the institution had sold three Russian paintings for $7 million in 2008. The money was put into an account that could only be tapped for acquisitions or care of the collection.

"The difference is that when Van came in, he was looking at what you're not supposed to be looking at," Hayden said. She formed that opinion, she said, because Shields was not intending to use proceeds to adjust or rebuild the collection.

"You don't use [that term] in museum-speak," she said of the concept of "monetization."

"Because it isn't an asset to be monetized. It shouldn't be thought of as a financial asset," Hayden said. "The sole purpose [of a sale] is to buy pieces that do support a museum's mission."

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Hayden said Shields contacted her last year and asked that she return to Pittsfield to help the Berkshire Museum review its holdings so it could decide what to sell.

"He said he would make it worth my while financially," she posted on Facebook, speaking of that invitation. "They didn't have a Collections Manager at the time. He talked again about monetizing the collection and deaccessioning. I considered helping them for a moment because I thought I could steer the discussion.

"In the end, I couldn't leave my current job for any amount of time and I also just didn't think he was serious," she wrote.

In her post, Hayden then said she likes Shields personally and wants "only the best for the museum."

She closes, "But I just want it to be clear, he always had the intention to 'monetize the collection;' he talked about it a lot."

Attorney's views

Shields wasn't the only one associated with the museum to openly advocate sales from the collection for reasons other than those allowed by the American Alliance of Museums.

Mark S. Gold, the museum's attorney, wrote an essay for a 2015 book, "Legal Issues for Museum Professionals," that addresses sales head-on in its opening paragraph, one that has proved to be prescient in light of criticism the Pittsfield institution faces:

"There is no greater flashpoint — real or imagined — in the relationship between trustees and museum professionals than the monetizing of the collection, defined as the use of the proceeds of deaccessioning for purposes other than the collection and its care, or, even worse, deaccessioning to raise money for operations or other institutional expenses."

But Gold went on in his piece to challenge the legal strength of that widely held ethical principle.

"There is nothing illegal about monetizing the collection," he wrote. If it were illegal, he says, attorneys general would be going after violations. And AGs, he writes, are not in a position to substitute their judgment "for the judgment of [a museum's] board in the good faith exercise of its decision-making power."

Gold confirmed that he wrote the legal essay but referred further comment on deaccessioning to the museum.

While museum associations can create rules and set ethics norms, those do not carry the force of law, Gold wrote.

If members of the Berkshire Museum board had doubts about the legality of their planned auction, Gold's essay would have helped eased them.

"The unwillingness of the museum community to recognize the legal right of museums to monetize their collections lies not just in the misconception that the ethical rule has somehow acquired the status of law, but, more importantly, is encumbered by a failure to appreciate the legal obligation and prerogatives of the governing boards of museums — the trustees," Gold wrote.

In his essay, Gold offers up the Berkshire Museum as "an excellent example" of a tension between ethics and law. And he signals, seemingly before the New Vision focus group process began, that the institution would need to confront that tension in order to survive.

"To date, the trustees of the Berkshire Museum have honored the restriction on the use of the proceeds from this sale, as required by the ethical rule," Gold wrote. "Since the proceeds are otherwise unrestricted as to use, if the trustees were to apply those proceeds to fund operating or capital expenses for the museum, all in support of its articulated mission, they would unquestionably be within their legal right to do so.

"Indeed, one might speculate that at some point, if conditions became dire, they would be violating their fiduciary duties to the institution by declining to do so," he said.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass

Investigations editor

Larry Parnass, investigations editor, joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant and CommonWealth Magazine.