To the editor:
Like many, I have looked on at the recent controversy surrounding the proposed sale of 40 works by the Berkshire Museum and been troubled by both the loss of the art works and the pitched rhetoric of the debate about the museum's decision to sell them. As one opposed to deaccessioning the works, I am sad to see them go. On the other hand, institutions often have to make tough financial decisions, and voluntary boards carry a heavy burden in making them, which needs to be respected. While I think it unwise to sell them, I do realize that ultimately it is the museum's board and director who are responsible for making the critical decisions they see as necessary.
But here is what they do not get to sell: honesty and the public trust.
As one of the 400 community members asked by Director Van Shields to participate in a focus group on the museum's future, I can confirm the reporting done by The Eagle that the groups were not informed that the plan called for selling the 40 works of art. I can also add that last week I received a letter from Director Shields that explains such an ethical oversight by saying, "We did not flag that for you, because we wanted your unfettered input to test our ideas and make our final selection." In addition he adds, "You were not asked to endorse our New Vision; rather, you played a role in helping us shape it."
Both of these statements are on the surface true, but only as the deceptive patina of a position that is utterly false. To shape a vision without being told entirely the consequences of it is to be co-opted. To be co-opted is to not even be deemed worth entrusting with the entire truth, or to be used to shape an eventual outcome without being told the real cost of shaping it.
Elizabeth McGraw, president of the museum board, indeed claims in her August 19 oped commentary, "We asked these people to help us shape our plans, not to endorse them." However, what she fails to acknowledge is that asking people to shape a plan and then claiming they are for it without informing them entirely of what the plan involves is a dishonest manipulation of their good will and trust.
Had I been told about the proposed sale of the works, I would have advised against it, made the case for my position, and then respected the board's and the director's right to make whatever decision was made. Nor would I have gone to the ramparts for my position, for in the end the decision is really not up to me.
But honesty is up to me. It is up to each of us to be honest, it is up to each of us to call out those who are not honest, and it is up to all of us to shine a light on an argument we feel is dishonest, even when made without ill intentions.
Like any individual, I struggle as best I can to maintain the honesty and trust demanded of me as a parent, neighbor, teacher, and citizen. That is a hard enough struggle for me (and for all of us) without having it taken out of my hands and decided for me by an institution endowed, in the most important sense of all, with our trust.