PITTSFIELD — With one week at his new job under his belt, the Berkshire Museum's new executive director said he has been busy "immersing himself" in the collections from the perspectives of staff, educators and visiting students.
Jeff Rodgers, who previously served as provost and chief operating officer of the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Fla., arrived in Berkshire County on Sunday. The next morning, he took the reins at the museum, meeting with staff, educators and community members in an effort to assess the needs and culture of his new workplace.
"This is a great place for me to do that, because I love da Vinci stuff," Rodgers said Friday while meeting with Craneville Elementary School second graders in the museum's "Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion" exhibition.
While Peter Leffers of the education staff spoke to the group of 7- and 8-year-olds, Rodgers pulled on levers of a mock "wind trial" and crouched down in front of it to feel the machine blow air toward his face. He also joined the students in building miniature parachutes from coffee filters; they later tested their effectiveness.
While educators could have given the students a list of instructions on how to build their parachutes, they instead handed over the materials and let them experiment on their own. That way, they learn on their own what works and what doesn't.
"This is the way to do it," Rodgers said, of the trial-and-error method.
Rodgers came to the museum as it turned the corner from a controversial rebranding that polarized the Berkshire arts community. During summer 2017, former Executive Director Van Shields announced a $66 million plan to fund the museum's "New Vision."
Some who opposed the venture took issue with how it would be financed — through the sale of 40 pieces of art that included Norman Rockwell works.
Others expressed concern that the proposed atrium would remove historic elements of the museum's 39 South St. building. Shields left his position at the museum over the summer.
"It didn't scare me, obviously. I'm here," Rodgers said. "Museums face challenges. Clearly, this museum faced a challenge."
Rodgers acknowledged the "heated conversations" that arose in the wake of the Rockwell sales but said he's not here to walk that vision back or to impose his own vision on the community.
"You've got to find a way to pick up on the other side of that and move an institution forward," he said.
Rodgers stopped short of detailing the plan for the museum, noting that he is prioritizing getting to know the museum through the experiences of those who visit it. He reviewed the plan already in place at the museum but said he could be months from outlining the next steps.
Speaking broadly, though, Rodgers said that one goal is to ensure that visitors are engaged with "evergreen" exhibits and can always learn something new with each visit to the space.
He said he was drawn to the job because of the museum's "rare" interdisciplinary mix of art, natural history and artifacts, along with the staff's efforts to weave together the stories of each medium.
"You should be able to grow up with this place," he said. "You should never stop learning."
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.