Berkshire Museum halts financial talk with Massachusetts Cultural Council

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield.

PITTSFIELD — Lines of communication appear to be down between the Berkshire Museum and the state's top cultural agency.

Van Shields, the museum's executive director, canceled a planned Wednesday meeting with the Massachusetts Cultural Council that was to have continued an August discussion about its finances and planned sale of artwork.

The breakdown follows the council's Sept. 20 call for the museum to stop the sale, on the grounds that the action is improper and unnecessary.

The agency also blocked funding this fiscal year for the museum, pending a review by the state attorney general's office into the legality of the sale of works. In the past decade, the agency has contributed $1.2 million to the museum.

Anita Walker, the MCC's executive director, said Monday she is surprised the museum canceled the meeting.

"Nevertheless, we remain open to continuing our discussion about its financial challenges and resources we can bring to the table to help meet them," Walker said.

A spokeswoman for the museum could not be reached for comment.

In September, the museum criticized the MCC for opposing the sale, which is scheduled to start with a Nov. 13 auction of American pieces at Sotheby's in New York City.

That sale will include two paintings given to the museum by Norman Rockwell. Members of the Rockwell family appealed last week to the state attorney general's office to act to keep those and 38 works in the museum's collection.

Last month, the museum called the MCC's stance "deeply disappointing." In a statement, the museum's board said it hoped the council would do more to advise the 114-year-old Pittsfield institution on ways it could address what its leaders term a $1 million yearly deficit.

And they questioned why the MCC would come out against the art sale before the museum had a chance to provide more information on its finances and on the "new vision" project that will be paid for in large part by auction proceeds.

That session was to have been held Wednesday. Museum leaders had initially planned to provide answers to questions Walker posed in an Aug. 30 meeting in Pittsfield.

"We share a similar mission with the MCC to inspire and educate citizens of the Commonwealth," the board's Sept. 20 statement said. "Yet the MCC has not put forth a concrete or viable alternative, making the MCC's position even more untenable."

Selling the artworks, the board's statement said, "will ensure that our cherished institution will be able to enrich our community for at least another century."

Standards in the museum profession do not allow proceeds from art sales to cover operational costs. While acknowledging that, museum leaders have said they face the risk of closing within eight years if they do not act.

The MCC statement challenged that assessment. Based on its own analysis, the agency determined the museum's financial picture is not so dire and could be put right with a smaller growth of its endowment. It could achieve that, Walker's team calculated, by increasing its endowment, now worth about $8.6 million, by another $5 million to $10 million.

The museum's art sale aims to push the endowment to roughly $48.6 million.

Walker met Sept. 21 with representatives of the attorney general's office to discuss the sale, which she sees as a "violation of the public trust that nonprofits must respect as part and parcel of their special status."

At the time, Walker pledged the council would work with the museum to improve its financial picture.

Each year, the council helps fund the work of 400 nonprofits in the state.

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