PITTSFIELD — Beginning with an agreement signed with Sotheby's auction house before announcing to the public its plans to sell the 40 most-prized artworks in its collection, the Berkshire Museum has operated behind a veil of secrecy not befitting a non-profit institution. While recent legal rulings from the attorney general and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court allow the museum to proceed with its plans to sell up to $55 million of its art, as Linda Kaye-Moses wrote recently in The Eagle, "Judicial approval does not necessarily lead to judicious action."
Indeed, this sale sets a precedent that threatens all art and artifacts in the public trust held not only by museums, but libraries and historical societies as well. Therefore, the citizens' group SAVE THE ART—SAVE THE MUSEUM (STA) continues to ask the museum leadership to halt the sales, take advantage of unprecedented national attention to initiate vigorous fundraising, and embark on a mission that includes full fiscal transparency, community engagement and ethical museum practice.
Everyone desires a healing of the rift this dispute has caused in the community, yet the policy of secrecy that led to the unnecessary division remains. Museum leadership has steadfastly refused all requests from STA to participate in public forums and as recently as mid-April, following their court victory, declined to be interviewed by Carrie Saldo on WGBY Public Television for Western New England.
Community needs answers
Given that these are the community's artworks, the money derived also belongs to the community, which therefore deserves to know how it will be used. If the museum expects to restore any of its former trusted relationship with the public, the following questions must be answered:
— Who is covering the Museum's legal fees, estimated to be at least $1M?
— If Sotheby's is paying the legal fees, to what extent is the Museum beholden to the auction house? Is their agreement with that international corporation the reason the Museum has not responded to community pressure to pull the artworks from auction?
— If the museum is covering its own legal fees, are they drawing from the endowment they have already characterized as insufficient? Is this the kind of expenditure donors were led to believe they were funding when they contributed to the museum? The attorney general's office (AGO) has told STA that even they do not know who is paying the legal fees. If so, we must ask, how thorough was their investigation into the fiscal health of the Museum? Where is the AGO's report that explains its radical change of heart from strong indictment in mid-January to approval only weeks later?
— In place of direct contact with the public, the museum leadership has chosen to speak through professional public relations firms. What are these costs?
— What are the terms of the museum's agreement with George Lucas, whose Museum of Narrative Art is buying Norman Rockwell's painting, Shuffleton's Barbershop? How much did it sell for? Who brokered that sale? What was their fee? What are the net proceeds?
— In July, when the deaccession plans were announced, the museum reported an $8 million endowment. By December, it had been reduced to $6 million. What explains this difference?
Why the huge deficit?
— The museum says it has been operating with a $1 million yearly budget deficit for many years. What are the reasons for this shortfall? (The Albany Institute of History and Art, an institution of similar size and demographic, mounts exhibitions reviewed by the New York Times and employs two curators where the Berkshire Museum has none — on an annual budget of approximately $500,000 less.]
— How does the museum justify its need for a $40 million endowment, nearly 10 times that of other museums of its size and demographic? How, where, and by whom will this endowment be invested?
— What specific plans does the museum have for the proceeds from the sale? Where is the mission statement that informs its strategic plan for the next five years? What does it intend to accomplish and how it will be realized — not just financially but in terms of attendance and service to the community? Beyond the "New Vision," which appears to be geared to children, how will the museum's exhibitions and programming address the rest of the community?
— Has the museum revisited its original controversial architectural plans? How will the community's investment in preserving the historical integrity of the architecture be addressed?
The museum owes the community the answers to these questions.
Carol Diehl of Housatonic and Rosemary Starace of Pittsfield write for SAVE THE ART — SAVE THE MUSEUM.