Catherine B. Deely: Museum bravely confronts reality
"Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges." Herman Melville.
PITTSFIELD — The Berkshire Museum is unlike any other in the Berkshires and even farther away. I am grateful for the unique role this community museum plays for our families. If you've visited or perused their programming, you can appreciate its singular contribution, worthy of support.
My opinions on the matter of selling art to build an endowment were formed in the following ways: I participated in the museum's energetic focus group process; am a daughter of a founder of the Norman Rockwell Museum watching its growing pains and volunteered as an NRM board member for 10 years; was professionally employed by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as it went through its planning process to build an expansion — an idea that, for many, was contrary to the very specific vision of its founder yet ended up with enhanced public programming, increased visitors, as well as a stronger, financially secure institution. I've shouldered those trustee and staff responsibilities, participated in those difficult conversations and now encourage people to take a moment to walk in the shoes of this museum's leadership.
A donor drought
It's instructive to look at the research published by Williams College's Center for Creative Community Development (C3D) — Stephen Sheppard and Kay Oehler that I delved into as board chair of Berkshire Creative and 1Berkshire board member. Key findings of their (2012) Update on Non-Profits in Berkshire County that are of particular importance to our creative economy include:
"The number of non-profits per resident is higher in Berkshire County than Massachusetts; it is more than double that of the U.S .In 2008 there were 27.0 non-profits in Berkshire County per 10,000 population, compared to 17.1 in Massachusetts and 11.7 in the US . Of the public charities (excluding Tanglewood and Bard College at Simon's Rock), 74 were `culturals'." Also, "Over the past 12 years, the non-profit sector has seen a 54 percent increase in the number of organizations in Berkshire County"; and, "In 2008, there were 2.0 times as many arts and cultural non-profits in Berkshire County as in 1996."
For those who suggest museum leadership go back to the drawing board and find ways to raise a sustaining endowment, check into the reality outlined in the research above showing that competition from a comparatively small number of people for non-profit donations is fierce, especially among cultural organizations. I hear understandable expressions of loss but not any concrete, viable alternative solutions for building endowment.
The gut-wrenching challenge of raising funds, for just annual operations in the face of extremely limited sources of revenue, is an extremely difficult task. Few museums in our community are capable of or have created `pure' endowments - producing income only for operating expenses — to secure long term financial stability. I am confident that a clear-eyed, realistic assessment of the current state of affairs and options was fully explored by the museum's leadership.
Perhaps what we're witnessing is the morphing of a beloved community institution carving its own path out of necessity, challenging convention and facing threatened `punishment' from many quarters, in order to serve the demonstrated community needs from a strong financial footing.
Others, financially strapped and unable to create a sustainable financial future in an ever constricted revenue source present and future, have a more difficult road to travel. The Berkshire Museum isn't looking for a fight, rather survival and it surely wants to retain and attract supportive friends.
While there are few public voices in support of relaxing the "deaccessioning" position of cultural associations, Mother Jones put a fine point on the argument in 2016 in response to a sale of art by the Delaware Museum. " it is hard to understand why art museums alone among all the institutions of mankind, should be required to never sell anything they own."
The bottom line is that the museum is fortunate to be able to make a case for and take action, while trying to educate the public about its reality and pushing against the head winds. The museum knows that this is a national issue reflecting the often unpleasant controversy, as well as support, we are witnessing locally. I'm proud of the fortitude in its process as well as the opening of the door for a local and broad rational (hopefully) and realistic conversation about change in the face of necessity and reality.
As we've learned from the national discourse, let's listen and appreciate another's point of view and agree to disagree with mutual respect. I'll stand with the museum because I have confidence in its decision-making process and know that, in the end, we'll have a stable institution that even better serves the community in ways that invites an interdisciplinary experience, as was envisioned by its founder who also valued institutional sustainability.
Catherine B. Deely is former board chair, Berkshire Creative; former board member of 1Berkshire; former trustee of Norman Rockwell Museum (10 years); former board chair, Los Angeles Arts Loan Fund; former marketing director, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
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