Berkshire Museum

The Berkshire Museum.

Remember how wise, life-experienced adults would repeat that the passage of time heals all wounds — words to mollify and comfort heightened emotions when faced with hurtful experiences.

Indeed, the passing of time finds its way to blur painful memories and diminish tender, raw emotions. But time also dulls events, and with that, pieces of narrative and historical fact fade as well.

That said, it has been close to three years since the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield unloaded 40 works of art to the tune of $53.25 million in the spring of 2018, auctioned publicly at Sotheby’s and through private sales, representing one of the largest deaccessioning cases in museum history. The museum announced the sale, nicknamed its “New Vision,” for what was supposedly a transformative institutional change from art to a science- and history-based focus, using the sale gains to augment funding for their operating budget and a major building renovation.

unhealed woundsSo when Van Shields and Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw, the former Executive Director and Board president, appeared in a virtual symposium on museum art deaccessioning organized by Syracuse University’s College of Law and Graduate Program in Museum Studies last month, naturally it stirred interest, especially among Berkshire County residents where emotions remain bitter.

As the proclaimed New Vision had not materialized in the past three years, one wondered if new information would be shared. Would more specific plans for renovations and restructuring the collection emerge? Would Shields and McGraw issue an apology or perhaps a sliver of contrition to the area’s cultural community embittered over the loss of a beloved art collection with magnificent works by Norman Rockwell, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Alexander Calder and many others? As anticipated, no revelations came to light.

So let us remember some of the narrative. In mid-2017, when the museum announced the mega art sale leading up to the 2018 auctions, there had been a torrent of opposition with public protests, national news stories and multiple lawsuits surrounding the sale.

Let us remember that respected art professionals, economists and individuals stepped in, and reached out to the museum’s leadership to offer ways to help manage the museum’s financial deficit with sound advice and generous monetary support. What they asked was to halt the sale with a thorough financial examination so that a possible compromise could be worked out to keep the works at the museum and accessible to a community who had grown up with these paintings for generations. And yet despite these overtures, their response was a deafening silence, as the museum leadership shut down, closing themselves off to all public engagement.

Let us then remember that, as tax-exempt entities, museums are entrusted to serve their respective communities with open engagement as prudent custodians of their collections. The Berkshire Museum’s chosen “engagement,” though, was tightly controlled statements issued through hired public relations consultants, which remained in place through the resolution of lawsuits and the sale. And even after the $53.25 million was garnered, barely a peep was heard. Clearly, the train had long left the station, and this multimillion dollar sale of 40 works had been planned years in advance, perhaps hatched as early as 2015 by the museum’s lawyer Mark Gold, executive director Shields and a number of key board members.

After all, they reasoned, with a stash of more than $50 million — yes, an eye-popping number for a small museum with a comparably small budget — the Berkshire Museum could rest back, and never have to go about the drudgery of fundraising that occupies most if not all museums. No more dialing for dollars; no more cajoling and cozying up to potential donors; no more lifting a fundraising finger.

A multimillion dollar windfall would finance not only building renovations — at a cost of a small fraction of their realized bundle — but a portion of the entire operations from year to year. Sure, the building would be bereft of a quality art collection; but the money would be flowing in beyond all imagination, funding operations with a whole lot left over to play with.

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Let us also remember that, for decades, the works sold had not been in storage or out of the public eye due to a lack of wall space, one of the justifications many museums cite for deaccessioning. Much of the art had been on permanent display for decades; some were quite simply the star draws for visitors to the Berkshire Museum. But by May 2017, the corpus of the art collection went missing — permanently — from the walls, packed away and trucked off to Sotheby’s to begin their journey to the auction block.

Let us remember some key dates, as the timeline verifies the extent to which Gold, Shields and McGraw thwarted ethics and museum best practices. The contract with Sotheby’s was signed on June 13, 2017, and Gold notified Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy of the impending sale on June 22, 2017. These actions took place weeks before July 12, 2017, when the full board — the fiduciaries of the museum — would vote on the sale.

The procedural standard in ethical museum deaccessioning entails professional input from curators and experts to thoroughly vet a sale of such magnitude, followed by a full board discussion and vote. Only then should a museum notify the Attorney General and sign an auction contract to move forward. Despite these serious ethical lapses, Gold has since fashioned himself as the “go-to” deaccessioning legal expert, ambitiously setting up a cottage industry to advise museums on shedding their art treasures.

Fast-forward to last month’s symposium, and what could have been an opportunity to clear some air. But all we heard from Shields and McGraw was a repetitive mantra of excuses, rationales and resorting to the blame game. The symposium moderator broached the subject that the sale provoked unprecedented community criticism and opposition, which Shields blamed on the “local newspaper,” the intrusion from people “outside” and a general “angry” and “irrational” public. McGraw played up the museum’s financial deficits, the area’s impoverished status, a dearth of wealthy area donors and stated “we sold some things.”

What could have been

This moment could have been a prime opportunity for Shields and McGraw to come forward and express an apology to the community. Perhaps, had they consulted with public relations experts prior to this symposium, advice would be to express regret and apologize — gestures that can help restore a bit of good will and community healing.

Let us remember that the museum is flush with millions, and a real gesture is action. One would be for the museum’s leadership to commit to using a portion of the sale proceeds to build back a quality art collection. When you have millions of dollars, even after setting aside funds for renovations and endowment, you are left with a lot. For the Berkshire Museum to embark on assembling a high-quality paintings collection would truly be a much-anticipated “New Vision.”

A strategic plan of this type could be realized over time by thoughtfully collecting paintings by 19th-century Hudson River School artists, for example, who are significant to the area, as these painters were closely connected to the Berkshires. Landscapes by well-known Hudson River painters can be bought for middle five figures with significant, historical works climbing into six figures — prices that the museum could well afford to invest in for their art-viewing community.

Indeed this would be a true “New Vision” and, as time swiftly marches on, one that would be genuinely welcomed as an achievement well worth remembering.

Lynn Villency Cohen, of Stockbridge, is an art historian.