WINDSOR — The announcement by the Berkshire Museum of its intention to sell two masterful paintings by Norman Rockwell, gifted to the community by the artist himself, and 38 other unnamed artworks on July 12 came as a surprise to all of us who were not part of what the museum called its community outreach. As it turns out, it was also a surprise to those who were involved. The individuals selected to participate in a two-year "visioning" program were given incomplete information about how the museum intended to fund its "New Vision."
The museum could have revealed much sooner what leadership has called its "existential threat" and engaged in a public discussion, undertaken development efforts, and launched a capital campaign. Instead the museum leaders decided to intentionally withhold from their own community input groups that monetizing its collection was the "toolbox" of choice.
It is now clear that selling the art was the plan from day one. Convening focus groups and community "guidance" teams was not a serious line of independent inquiry but instead a process structured to create the appearance of consent for a path preconceived and hidden by the director with support from the board.
In addition the fact that artworks selected to be sold were already consigned to an auction house before the museum announced its plans demonstrates a lack of faith in both the "New Vision" and the potential for public support of it.
What if construction costs escalate? Have all the plans been revealed? What checks and balances remain for problems that may arise during the reinvention that have not been fully disclosed with anticipated budgets or schedules? This sale now establishes a precedent for future raids into the collection to pay bills. Indeed, one collector admitted that he was actually dissuaded by museum director Van Shields from donating art to the museum because it was possible that the museum might have to sell it.
Grow, don't sell off
When I was the director of the Storefront Artist Project in Pittsfield, I participated in the Creative Economy Study for Berkshire County. That study was done to identify and understand the rich cultural landscape of the Berkshires, how to grow it and how it contributes to the local economy. It was not done to find what art works we could sell to pay bills. The creative sector is growing and so is its role in the local economy. The Berkshire Museum can contribute to this by preserving and protecting its art, not by selling it.
At the protest in front of the museum I heard Elizabeth McGraw, the head of the Board of Trustees, state to a local news station that the public has not come forward with its own solutions. Her statement ignored the fact that the board had years to kick this issue around, not just the previous few weeks that the public had. Her claim of no answers was disingenuous, cynical and simply dishonest.
Now that some time has passed for reflection, offers of help have come in from individuals and professional organizations. When I asked Executive Director Van Shields for a response to the article in The Berkshire Eagle, which offered a million dollars, he called it "a late Friday afternoon attack".
What? The director of the museum called an offer of a million dollars an attack? This just typifies the defensive posturing the museum has taken. Pushback, no true dialogue.
In her letter of August 18, Ms. McGraw asserts that the museum expected criticism from professional museum associations, saying: "The staff and board have built those consequences into our new operating model and developed a programming strategy that remains independent." Independence may sound great; however, cutting the institution off from peer organizations, potential grants, and loans from other museums is surely a recipe for disaster, not to mention the deep breach of public trust that this decision has created for potential donors and supporters.
The museum claims it's sliding toward a financial cliff. It has already been mentioned here that Edith Wharton's pile had terrible debt. But there a new executive director was hired who knew how to raise funds. The board explained the nature of the crisis to the community and the community rallied and today The Mount is debt free. It didn't sell off its heritage, it didn't need a new vision; it rolled up its sleeves and launched a capital campaign.
The Berkshire Museum's board needs to stand and face its critics. Stand at the edge of your financial precipice; don't use it as a podium, but rather as a platform, a sounding board. Hear what the public, financial professionals, and museum organizations have to offer. Assemble those who have been alienated by the deeply flawed process that produced this plan, listen to their constructive criticism, and have a productive conversation. Do not throw the art into this chasm of debt.
Save the art.
Save the museum.
Let's hold a forum and have a real conversation.
Peter Dudek is a former director of the Storefront Artist Project (2006-2009) in Pittsfield.