Becoming an executive director of any generic nonprofit would pose challenges in this day and age but the challenges facing Jeffrey Rodgers, the new executive director of the Berkshire Museum, are unique and particularly formidable. He is charged with taking the museum forward following a controversial art sale that fractured the Pittsfield's institution's relationship with the community and with the larger museum and art world. If the museum is to succeed by any measure, the new executive director and the board of trustees will have to heal wounds that are deep and still open.
The museum's decision to sell off cherished art, including work by Norman Rockwell, to raise money to pay off debts and pursue a "New Vision" generated a furor that extended well beyond the Berkshires. A state Supreme Judicial Court order issued in response to lawsuits attempting to block the sale allowed the museum to sell up to $55 million worth of art. With the departure of executive director Van Shields, Mr. Rodgers, the provost and chief operating officer of the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Fla., was hired and arrived in Pittsfield a month ago with the controversy still smouldering.
In an editorial board meeting at The Eagle on Tuesday, Mr. Rodgers said the sale of 22 artworks brought in $53.25 million and that no further sales are coming (Eagle, May 8). All of the art works that had been up for sale but were not purchased are back in the museum, with the exception of one that is still to be shipped. The end of the sale of art won't close any wounds but it should prevent them being widened any further.
The art sale was going to be controversial, but its impact was magnified because so many people felt blindsided by the size and scope of a sale that came without adequate warning. The Berkshire Museum failed to act with transparency before, during and after the art sale, causing anger in the Berkshires and in the museum world to grow and fester. Mr. Rodgers promised Tuesday to provide that transparency but it must also be provided by the board of trustees, which along with Mr. Shields, was harshly criticized by opponents of the sale far and wide, and is still largely made up of the same people who advocated for the sale and the New Vision in the first place.
In response to a question at Tuesday's editorial board session, Mr. Rodgers extended an open invitation to meet with opponents of the sale, including members of the Save The Art group that was at the forefront of the opposition, to begin a dialogue. The museum's decision to retreat into its bunker when the controversy broke further poisoned the atmosphere and this dialogue with foes will be necessary to begin clearing it.
Mr. Rodgers said he would also begin rebuilding relationships with museums and trade organizations that essentially cast the museum out of its fraternity. He acknowledged that may be a lengthy process but ending this ostracism is a necessary one. Ideally, the museum will resume an affiliation with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History that was ended by Mr. Shields.
The prior administration's attitude toward fundraising was essentially that there was no more money to be gotten out of the Berkshire stone. Letter writers replied to The Eagle that they would have contributed to the museum if anyone had asked them to do so. Mr. Rodgers said Tuesday that the museum would not sit on a "Scrooge McDuckian pile of money" but would instead actively engage in fundraising.
To its credit, the board of trustees abandoned the extravagant architectural changes of the "New Vision" that would have altered the character of the museum. But it is worrisome that a "structural budget gap" emerged when the board oversaw a modest $8 million endowment as opposed to a current endowment of more than $50 million. Transparency from the new leadership and the board of trustees will become critical this fall when the museum begins rolling out its plans, including likely building projects.
Wisely, Mr. Rodgers said at the Eagle board meeting that he would avoid speaking of new visions in favor of "activating the collection" in ways that enhance the museum experience for visitors. The executive director's abstract vision will begin taking concrete form later this fall and we wish him the best going forward. Whatever comes next is not likely to flourish unless the Berkshire Museum, which squandered good will built over decades in a few short months, can convince the Berkshire community and the larger museum and art community that it is moving into the future with transparency and a willingness to listen.