NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Over the course of a long journalistic career, I've covered art and museums as a reporter, critic, author, and editor, but never in that time have I encountered anything as alarming as the drama unfolding now at the Berkshire Museum.
I hold a special affection for the museum, Pittsfield, and the Berkshires. My journalism career began at the Berkshire Eagle in 1980, when I was hired out of college as a general-assignment writer for the Berkshire Sampler. During six formative years, I was steeped in, among other fare, the cultural tradition that distinguishes Berkshire County. The paper was still in the flatiron building on Eagle Street then, and often on lunch hours I took the short walk past the "popcorner" and across Park Square to wander the galleries of the Berkshire Museum. Of the many cultural institutions in the county, none embodied for me the singular essence of the Berkshires more than that limestone palazzo. Displayed under one roof were the splendors of nature and the sublime creations of human genius—science and art, natural and manmade beauty, together in intellectual and aesthetic collaboration. This noble balance has long been the measure and treasure of the Berkshires, the quality that attracts the world to our doors.
The museum's art collection was assembled to be eclectic and educational. Unlike many small museums, it is also exquisite. Its grand landscapes, narrative paintings, Asian artifacts, even the plaster reproductions of classical sculpture, inspired me to look closely and sharpened my appetite for more. I left the Eagle and embarked on a career as an arts journalist, eventually becoming art critic at the Christian Science Monitor and a fellow at Columbia University's School of Journalism. Being based in upstate New York, the Berkshires were always in my view. In 2000, I wrote about the county's art museums for the guidebook Muses in Arcadia: Cultural Life in the Berkshires, and in 2007 was on the advisory panel for the Berkshire Museum's Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation. I know the collection well.
I was naturally troubled, then, at the news last month that the museum planned to rewrite its identity to minimize its art mission, and sell 40 artworks to service its debt, establish an endowment, and pay for renovations. With the release on July 24 of the exact works for auction—including more than 30 of its very best paintings—it became clear that the real story coming out of South Street is not the proposed whiz-bang "reboot," but the mass extinction of Pittsfield's masterpieces. The museum has been operating in the red for decades, struggling against the region's economic downturns and changing demographics. Directors since the late 1980s have attempted to redefine its relevance in a rapidly transforming world. I have immense sympathy for the trustees as they've watched the deficit move above $1 million, and can understand how seductive it must be to resolve the money crisis with a single dramatic act.
But this wholesale clearance of the museum's crown jewels is too much. It is a violence against the mission, the collection, and the museum's public trust. It violates Zenas Crane's core principle in founding his institution, "to aid in promoting education, culture, and refinement." Mostly, it betrays Berkshire children in perpetuity, plundering their birthright of the artworks, and gutting the essential majesty of the museum's "noble collaboration" between the natural world and artistic creation. And for what? Virtual-reality headsets?
I support museum ethics that condemn cashing in the collection to meet expenses. It's a slippery slope, but not everyone's a fundamentalist on this point. I am not privy to the museum's revenue-raising efforts, and accept (to a point) that the leadership has explored all avenues. Plainly something must be done. But must the fix be so draconian and irrevocable? If our art is sold, it's a stone cold certainty that future generations will look back in horror and ask, "What were they thinking?" The announced "reinvention" requires a $20 million expansion and retrofit of the museum building. This is an all-too-common plague in museum circles. When in doubt, build something. If family members came to you and said, "We're underwater in debt. Let's sell grandfather's Ming vase and the Norman Rockwells, pay our bills, and put in a home theater!" you would rightly question their priorities. Maybe the Berkshire Museum does need to take the extreme step of selling treasures to remain solvent. This solution is no less imperfect for being necessary. It doesn't become more perfect if carried to extremes.
The answer for the trustees now: right the ship, boot the reboot, and soldier on. A better solution—maybe with new management—will appear.
The museum's executive director crows about the "community support" he obtained for the radical sale of the artworks. Given the pushback, key segments of the Berkshire community were obviously left out of the discussion. By now, the trustees surely recognize that the growing opposition to the sale is sober, informed, and in good faith. With or without their director, they need to take a step back and reassess what is necessary and appropriate. They certainly must insist that their 40 masterpieces, reportedly spirited out of the museum before anyone was looking, be brought back home and the auctioneer put on hold. This needs to happen immediately, before the momentum of the sale cannot be stopped.
Timothy Cahill is a freelance writer who has written about the Berkshire art scene for nearly 40 yerars.