Lynn Villency Cohen: Berkshire Museum drama is a complete sell-out

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STOCKBRIDGE — With summer bearing down, the Berkshire theater scene is underway. But the drama that has been most closely followed is one that continues to play out at a non-theater venue; the Berkshire Museum. For those who thought the museum deaccessioning drama was all but over now that 13 works were auctioned off to the tune of an estimated $45 million; indeed, the curtain may have closed on a very long Act One, but the subsequent acts will continue to play out in no less dramatic ways. And sadly this spectacle may have upstaged all theatrical productions operating in its 10-mile radius.

Flush with $45 million the Berkshire Museum's board announced that it has now secured its stated goal of keeping doors open and is currently selecting "an independent consultant to help the board hire an investment firm to inform the museum's strategies," and that it will "take time to consider how we will proceed through possible auction and private sale, to gain additional resources..." Dear me, If we ever needed an intermission or summer pause, this is the time, having watched an agonizing deaccession drama of everything from underhanded museum ethics, public relations missteps, long investigations by the state attorney general to the inexplicable final ruling by the state's high court.

Rest assured though, this pause will be all too brief. Regrettably, we should stay tuned for what many anticipate; a board announcement that a second round of sales is slated for the fall auction circuit or is already in private negotiations. The lineup of paintings that would potentially garner the additional $10 million to up the ante to the total of $55 million put in place by the attorney general will be those in the million dollar club, namely the Hudson River School landscapes — paintings by Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, and George Inness, as well as the Calder mobile. Once these are sold, the art collection will have been all but decimated, with predominately B list quality paintings left in the collection. The rapacious marauding of a public art collection by a coterie of board members, the museum's executive director and consulting attorneys, ushered along by a band of politicians and the attorney general, will have been completed.

Spirits haunt building

Any creative playwright may pen the next scenes in Act Two as something akin to a vanishing act. Because what were once rooms glowing with vital, high quality paintings are now permanently emptied and soulless; wiped clean of the art by famed artists that held historic Berkshire significance, housed in a museum that was eclectic and quirky. Some of the works had been in the collection for over a century, enriching generations of Berkshire residents who could delight in the detailed brush stroke of serenely romantic Hudson River landscapes, feel the sweetly saccharine bond of sisters at play in a Bouguereau painting, and nostalgically relive a bit of Americana in two landmark Norman Rockwell paintings.

In the hands of an imaginative dramaturge, what could follow this sorrowful vanishing act of empty museum walls may be something more mysterious. While the paintings of the core collection assembled by museum founder Zenas Crane, his family members and other key donors may have left the material world of this stately Pittsfield building, one can envision their spirit living on in the bare, stripped walls and storage facilities. For those residents who lament the loss of their childhood favorites such as Bouguereau's "Shepherdess" or Church's "Valley of San Ysabel," imagine the Dickensian ghosts of these paintings that may hauntingly loom overhead.

Meanwhile, with the third act presently upon us, the board has announced its intention to return to the standard practice of fundraising, attempting to restore standard museum practices, informing us that "fundraising for general operations will continue in earnest" and that the "museum's capital campaign will be reinvigorated." But what is there to fund-raise for, now that an investment of $55 million yielding an annual return of at least $2 million will most certainly cover their entire operating budget and more? Will this board's greed and audacity ever cease? And why a public utterance of launching a capital campaign when an eight figure windfall should amply cover renovation projects? This windfall plainly negates a need to raise even so much as a penny, but for the board purporting to act as an ethically sound nonprofit. With an overloaded endowment, all admissions and public programming from here on should be free.

While we have yet to watch the final scenes in this long running saga, we can speculate that a new cast of characters will emerge. Here the bankers, investment advisors, politicians, contractors and construction companies pile in to spend the leftovers on renovations and updated architectural plans. And in the closing scene, the most dramatic of soliloquies will be heard — the fatuous public pronouncements by local politicians hailing a newly renovated building, replacing what was once a proud, authentically elegant museum facade.

The curtain closes with the words of Sir William S. Gilbert, the English dramatist best known for his theatrical partnership as Gilbert and Sullivan, that are particularly apropos: "I'm really very sorry for you all, but it's an unjust world, and virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances." But hold on; we still await the epilogue in this long running saga, as it is unquestionably poised to be written.

Lynn Villency Cohen is an art historian and writer.




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