Elizabeth McGraw: Moving forward
PITTSFIELD — At the Berkshire Museum, we are passionate supporters of public art and museums. We believe that securing the future of this museum requires bold and imaginative thinking true to the mission of this institution, a mission that, from its founding, has embraced this community. We are disappointed the attorney general decided to continue legal action that now threatens the future of this museum. The temporary order issued in response is a setback for our members, our neighbors and all the citizens of Berkshire County.
That order temporarily stops the sale of a fraction of the museum's collection — 40 of 40,000 pieces. It was a tough, tough decision to put these works up for sale, particularly the two Rockwell paintings, but the board made that decision believing strongly that doing so would enable us to affirm our mission, invest in our community, and invest in our collections for generations to come. It would allow us to protect our most important asset: our open doors.
In too many other communities across the country, small regional museums like the Berkshire Museum are closing, shuttered by economic pressures similar to those we face here. In Massachusetts alone, the American Textile History Museum in Lowell and the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester.
Our community is struggling economically. Three out of four of the museum's neighbors are struggling too. Businesses are closing or leaving. School budgets are being cut. For the past decade, the Museum has operated with an average deficit of more than $1 million annually; its operating deficit since 2007 exceeds $11.8 million — despite aggressive fundraising, increasing membership, annual appeal pledges, ample grant writing, strong gala revenue, generous corporate sponsorships and relevant programming.
Our museum is at grave risk of closing, at a time when it is more important than ever because of shrinking government support for education and the arts.
The museum provides essential educational resources like history and STEAM topics, along with other content areas that have been cut or are at risk because of future cuts to public funding. In the 2016 -2017 school year alone, the Berkshire Museum provided more than 29,000 lessons and experiences for Berkshire County school children. For kids who may never get to the ocean, our museum's aquarium introduces them to sea life. For kids who will never get even to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, this museum brings them fine art. For kids whose science curriculum is limited, our museum fills that gap. It is also an important cultural center for adults, who enjoy programs and events that explore a range of topics related to the human experience. We are proud to be a community anchor, which is why we are working so hard to keep this museum open now and into the future.
True to the mission
Recognizing the crushing challenge we faced, the board and leadership of the museum spent nearly two years working to identify potential paths toward a sustainable future, starting by asking the community what they wanted and needed from the museum. The New Vision plan that resulted from this exhaustive outreach and consultation will create an innovative 21st-century institution true to the mission of the century-old museum.
Our New Vision plan will allow us to continue to serve the students, families, and Berkshire residents who rely on us. More of the museum's collection will be on display than is possible now. We will be able to create new spaces, including a new Berkshire Creators space dedicated to Berkshire visual artists and other innovators in Berkshire County from local businesses to fourth grade art students. We are passionate about innovation, and committed to ensuring that it is our community that defines innovation and creativity.
Importantly, our New Vision plan will provide the financial stability needed to sustain the museum, consistent with its mission. The difficult decision to sell just a few of the museum's thousands of works is necessary to help fund physical renovations and create a new endowment essential to the museum's future and long term financial stability.
Judge Agostini, in allowing the sale to proceed, recognized that we "undertook a deliberate and careful review" and our decisions reflected a "high degree of accountability to the individual donors as well as the community." And as the judge recognized that some would be disappointed in his decision, he also noted, "the rights of a charitable board to make thoughtful decisions to steer its charity through troubled times have been vindicated."
Our goal has always been and always will be to protect, sustain, and strengthen the Berkshire Museum. Zenas Crane created this museum to provide his less well-traveled neighbors with what he termed "a window on the world." If the doors to this museum close, so does that window. While we recognize the concerns of those in the well-funded arts community who oppose the sale, we know our neighbors rely on this museum for education, for understanding the world beyond the Berkshires, and for interacting with art and objects they may never otherwise encounter.
And so, hoping the legal process will resolve quickly and until it does, we will continue to do what we do every day: bring our passion for art, science and discovery to our community, in keeping with Zenas Crane's vision. We aim to keep that window open, to fulfill our responsibility to the community, to the collection, and to the future of this remarkable museum.
Elizabeth McGraw is president of the Board of Trustees of the Berkshire Museum.
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