The Berkshire Museum’s investment of $3.5 million in building renovation is good news, but did it require sacrificing the community’s most valuable art?
Might not a project of this modest scope have been managed through a combination of state resources, cultural agencies and traditional fundraising? The original technology-driven New Vision plan presented by the museum to justify the 2017 art sell-off has since been wiped from the website, and almost four years later the community still has no clear understanding of the museum’s long-term vision for the future.
What happens now? Will the Berkshire Museum reveal a new New Vision? Will its leadership ever adopt a policy of true transparency, responsive to its local community? What was once a multidisciplinary museum with a prized art collection at its heart is now little more than a family community center. Yet despite the loss of its most valuable art, art remains headlined in its mission, preceding science and history. This is the right time for the museum to restore art to its central role by hiring a professional curator to build a new collection that reflects the rich, varied art and artists of the Berkshire region, past and present.
This is timely. Across the nation museums are actively addressing the issues of inclusion and diversity. And this is smart: a focus on regional art fills a significant gap in the offerings of other local museums. Such an initiative offers a starting point for dynamic programming to engage both children and adults. There is no better use for the remaining proceeds, which provide an arguably excessive endowment for an institution this size. The community lost its cherished art collection, and is owed this much; it is the appropriate path.
The lack of ethical consideration behind the Berkshire Museum’s sell-off must not be confused with current deaccession activity in the United States now covered extensively by the press. The Association of Art Museum Directors has loosened its rules governing deaccessions to assist museums through hardship imposed by COVID-19. This permits them to use traditionally restricted funds more freely without sanction, and many are taking advantage of this temporary policy.
The fact remains that the Berkshire Museum was motivated by a crisis of its own making, not a pandemic over which there is no control. It is audacious and false to conflate the two. The Museum’s art sell-off still stands as the most egregious misuse of deaccessioning to date. It decimated Pittsfield’s prized inheritance, weakened the public trust and caused significant pain to the community that is as yet unaddressed.
Save the Art continues watching, advocating for transparency and action from the Berkshire Museum. With completion of the renovations, the leadership has a timely opportunity to change course — to reinvigorate its art mission and truly engage the broad community it serves.