PITTSFIELD — Jeff Rodgers originally intended to go to law school. But, after a short stint teaching in New York City after college, a colleague helped him get a job at the American Museum of Natural History, and a new career path was born.
It led Rodgers to the Berkshire Museum, where he became the executive director in 2019. But, he arrived after one of the most tumultuous times in the venerable institution's history.
Starting in 2017, his predecessor, Van Shields, spearheaded an effort to sell up to 40 pieces of art from the museum, a move that community members fought through lawsuits and protests. Ultimately, a Supreme Judicial Court justice approved a plan backed by Attorney General Maura Healey to allow the museum to raise $55 million. The sale of 22 works brought the museum $53.25 million.
As intended, the move secured the museum's financial future — and $3.5 million of the art sale proceeds is being spent on a much-needed renovation project, which includes a revamp of the building's second floor.
But, the art sale procedure, known as deaccessioning, proved to be highly controversial. It had its defenders and its detractors, and created a huge rift in the local community, and the reverberations were felt throughout the museum world regionally and nationally.
Rodgers previously had spent 16 years at the then-named South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Fla., which included four years as provost and chief operating officer. He says that experience has helped greatly in navigating the Berkshire Museum through the fallout from the deaccession crisis.
We recently spoke with Rodgers about how he originally became involved with museums, his navigational skills and how the Berkshire Museum finds its niche in the county's crowded cultural landscape.
Q How did you end up working in museums?
A It didn't start this way; isn't that the way all of these stories start?
I've loved museums my whole life, like most people do. I grew up with them in the New York City area. My grandparents were big museumgoers.
I never saw it as a career path. I was on my way to law school. I took a detour and worked for the New York City Public Schools for a couple of years in the early '90s.
Q How did that lead to museums?
A One of those schools was a charter school ... this was before there were [the current style of] charter schools. It was the Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change, which I worked with for one year. It's a school without walls in the center of Harlem. Tough, tough job. That was going to be the end of my education career. ...
Coming out of that, one of the women that I worked with at a group called New Vision for Education was an old [New York University] buddy of the vice president of education at the Museum of Natural History. He said he was looking for someone to fill a new role at the museum.
I was working a summer job for a friend whose family owned a soft-luggage company up in Newburgh, N.Y. I got a phone call from the office. They said, "You've got a call from the American Museum of Natural History." I thought it was a friend pulling a prank, so, I picked up the phone and said some juicy words, and they said, "No, we want you to come in for an interview."
So, I went in and ended up getting a job at the American Museum of Natural History and I never looked back. It opened up a whole new world for me. I looked at museums in a whole new way.
Q What was it about the work that attracted you so much and kept you in the field?
A It helps you to learn and appreciate things about the world in a way that school rarely does. It allows you to get engaged with the stuff, engaged with the artists themselves, the scientists themselves and the historians themselves. ... Museums bring all these things together in interesting ways that don't often happen in a school setting. Schools are still very siloed.
Q What did you major in at (college) at Wake Forest? Prelaw?
A Political science with a history minor. ... But, I was always a science nerd and art aficionado.
Q Were you one of those science nerds who collects weird things?
A I did collect weird things. As a kid, it was rocks.
Q Obviously, you knew about what happened at the Berkshire Museum before you came here. Why did you want to take this job after so much had gone on?
A I thought that my presence in Florida prepared me for bringing the museum through its next phase of evolution that the Berkshire Museum needed to have.
In my visits up here, my look through the collections and just looking at the history of the Berkshire Museum told me that it deserved this next phase of its evolution. And it was very clear that the community definitely wanted the Berkshire Museum to succeed and be a good museum for the Berkshires.
Q How could you tell?
A I think a lot of that controversy came from whatever side you were on because of a love of the museum and what it meant to the community. So, there was controversy and, yes, it was obvious that that was going to be part of what that work was going to be and no way of knowing how that was going to play out once I got here ... but knowing that somebody was going to have to go through that to get to the positive results that we all wanted to see happen. ...
I was ready for the next challenge in my professional life. We had just finished building a new wing at the South Florida museum, and we had just gone through the rebranding [it now is known as The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature].
Q How have you tried to mend fences between the two sides in the deaccession dispute since you came here?
A It was tricky. I was here just under a year when the pandemic kind of changed the nature of how we are engaged in meeting with people. ...
I didn't have all the conversations that I wanted to have before COVID changed things a little bit, so, there's still some conversations that need to be had. But, the ones that did take place were fruitful, and that kind of got me to the "We all want to see the museum succeed" position that I'm in right now.
I understand the ramifications. ... The deaccessioning for this type of purpose troubled a lot of people in the art world and the museum world. I also feel like that conversation has evolved and moved on at a very rapid pace over the last year-and-a-half with the AAMD (Association of Art Museum Directors) loosening its restrictions during the pandemic for deaccessioning.
Q As the executive director of the Berkshire Museum, if you found yourself in the same situation that your predecessor did, would you consider a similar plan to resolve it?
A Deaccession, you mean?
Q Can you tell me why?
A We're not going to find ourselves in that position again. I think that the goal for the past bold and controversial move was to secure the museum's financial future, and we're stewarding that now. So, we're not going to find ourselves in that boat again.
Q Even before this controversy occurred, there were questions about what the Berkshire Museum's role was going to be in the future. What's the vision going forward?
A The new vision that remains foundational is the interdisciplinary nature of the Berkshire Museum. This fits right in to my professional work.
We're not an art museum. We're not a history museum. We're not a local history museum. We're not a performing arts institution. But, all those things happen, and we've got collections to support all of those areas. ... I still go back to [museum founder] Zenas Crane's vision for the museum, that window on the world. That is as important as ever in our increasingly complex and increasingly interconnected world.
So, that's the space that we're going to be in, and it's celebrating the human experience through the arts, through the sciences, through historical understandings. ... It's finding a way to invite the community to come in and develop new ways of thinking about the objects in our collections and the connections between them and our community and also connecting to the outside world.
Q I know the museum suffered a loss in March when your popular, elderly red-legged tortoise, Chuck, died [Chuck, who was believed to be almost 80, had been at the Berkshire Museum since 1986]. Are there any plans to get another Chuck?
A Because we are just beginning to imagine what the aquarium, that living side of the museum, will look like, we're not taking any turtles at this time. We're putting together the memorial for Chuck in the existing aquarium now. ... Some of the kids coming in are still bringing homages to Chuck, even if it's a bag of lettuce, or something like that.