Daniel Bellow: Left with the carcass of Moby-Dick
GREAT BARRINGTON — It can't be much fun to be director of a local museum with financial problems. Your poorly paid staff has trouble keeping up its enthusiasm. Board meetings are a trial; it takes forever to get through the treasurer's report. Longtime supporters have left you high and dry, prospective donors tell you the local economy is in decline. It's hard to keep smiling.
But if you are the director of the Berkshire Museum, which is a local museum with a world class art collection, the answer is hanging right up there on the wall. Look at those Rockwells the artist gave your predecessor, the Bierstadt and the Fred Church old Zenas Crane bought with the money he made selling rag paper to the Treasury Department. For the $60 million or so they would fetch at auction you could build yourself a heck of a natural science museum. That would be a lot more fun. Everyone would want to be your friend. You could fund an expedition to dig up dinosaur bones, negotiate with Egyptians for some hieroglyphics. You can almost feel the wind rippling your hair as you stand upon the quarterdeck.
Follow the money
Of course spoilsports in the Berkshire art community, the wider arts and museum establishment and the media near and far were going to say that respectable museums are not supposed to sell their collections to fund their operating deficits, and it's a failure and betrayal of local pride to let go of the accumulated treasures of generations.
But other people saw right away they were being offered the carcass of Moby-Dick. An eight figure increase in funds on deposit is a big day for a much bigger bank than the ones we have here in the Berkshires. The banks would turn around and loan that money at interest to customers with bright ideas. There's nothing for creating jobs like a big construction project like the one that's about to start on South Street, deleting the best architectural features of a fine old building. And whoever gets to manage the museum's suddenly massive endowment is going to feel very lucky.
Of course you can't come right out and say that, because naked money grubbing is undignified. You've got to call it a New Vision, and say its all for the kids who don't get enough science in school. So you hold some focus groups and tell everyone how wonderful the New Berkshire Museum is going to be, but you don't tell them how you're going to pay for it. You spring that on everyone like that clever apartment developer who tore down that historic church on West End Avenue when I was a kid: one Tuesday the wrecking ball showed up and before anyone could even call City Hall it was a pile of rubble.
Earlier this year, I had a solo show at the Berkshire Museum, in the BerkshireNow gallery they reserve for local artists. Museum Director Van Shields came to see me in my studio, on his own initiative, and as far as I could tell he was a charming fellow who was giving me something I'd always wanted. I didn't know he'd been talking about "monetizing" the collection since he'd got there, nor that he had tried something very similar in his last job in South Carolina.
I was so proud to have my first museum show at the Berkshire Museum, where Alexander Calder had his first show. (I think the piece he showed is now at Sotheby's) Director Shields and his staff were most helpful in showing me how it was done. All my friends came to the opening. I was thrilled, and grateful. I came here in 1988 to be a reporter on The Berkshire Eagle and I wound up making a career as a working artist. I can't imagine I could have done what I did anywhere else.
I've always loved the museum. We used to go there with the kids on rainy days. The boy liked the fish and stuffed animals in the basement, but the girl and her art geek Dad loved the paintings upstairs. She understood two-dimensional perspective when she was five years old. It's off to art school with her next fall.
I have friends who tell me that the local pool of charitable money is shrinking, along with the economy, and even the dollar bill business is not what it used to be. With the money it gets for selling the cream of the collection, the museum can "assure its future." Discussions have become quite heated, because I have a number of problems with this argument.
One, without the Rockwells you can't see anywhere else because we got them from the hand of the man, and without our little piece of the Gilded Age art bonanza, it's just a little local museum with some shiny new exhibits. And the Berkshires are special. We deserve better. Right?
Two, there is every likelihood that these paintings will go to hang on the wall of some apartment in Manhattan or Dubai where no one now reading this will ever be invited. And the museum, like many of its kind, was founded on the premise that beautiful things are not just for the rich. Zenas Crane said so himself.
Three, if this all goes down as planned and I am a wealthy American with three Picassos and the intact skeleton of a Minotaur, am I going to donate them to a museum so some future director can flog them at auction when he's short of funds? I think not. It would be a bad precedent to set, and the word "Berkshire" would be attached to it.
A sudden 'crisis'
Four, just a decade ago, with tremendous support from the community and a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the whole building was renovated top to bottom, replacing the roof and installing a climate control system, which makes it not so sweaty on summer days and allows it to borrow paintings for shows from other museums. Now, all of a sudden, the museum is in crisis and the only thing to do is sell the collection and get out of the art museum business? Smells like a dead whale to me.
Five, I have prejudices I won't apologize for: I don't like guys who use the word "monetize." I'm suspicious of people who won't engage with their critics and hide behind surrogates, refuse to be interviewed and then turn around and demonize the press.
I'm glad to see that this is going to be decided in a court of law in Boston, removed from all local pressure one way or the other, but courts rule only on matters of law and the law takes time to catch up with the novel schemes people are always hatching, as Judge Agostini so subtly pointed out. The matter before us is one of principle or expediency. We could stop this now if the trustees would only reconsider.
The whole world is watching to see what we do. These events will long be remembered in our little valley. I'll go with principle. How about you?
Daniel Bellow is a ceramic artist and a former reporter and editorial writer for this newspaper.
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