Letter: How to succeed at a regional museum
What lies behind the events that have unfolded at the Berkshire Museum over the past five months, triggered by the surprise hijacking of its treasured art collection?
Overlooked in this debacle are the crucially flawed internal functions of the museum itself. I say this as a 20-year trustee of a similar regional institution, the Hudson River Museum (HRM) in Yonkers, N.Y., a community with strong social and economic parallels to Pittsfield. Operating with comparable size staffs, both institutions are essential local resources, bringing art, science and history to life through exhibitions, programs, and arts and science education for children.
Like so many other regional museums, HRM has also endured its fair share of financial struggles, but what occurred in Pittsfield would be unthinkable there, and not only because HRM doesn't have as valuable a collection to "monetize." Three reasons:
Staff: Creative programming is the engine that drives both attendance and funding. Led by its curatorial team, the intelligence and creativity HRM staff apply to exhibitions and supporting programs is integral to the museum's success. They are respected voices in board decisions, including strategic planning and policy and, as interpreters of the collections, they are the "soul" of the institution. Unimaginable to me is how the Berkshire Museum has operated without a single curator for several years, relying instead on costly contracted exhibitions that do not include, much less showcase, an art collection that would be a significant audience draw.
Board: HRM's board comprises community members representing a balanced and diverse range of resources and experience relevant to its essential needs. It supports the staff and leads the museum forward through regular participation in committees: Collections/Programs, Finance, Development, and Community/Government Relations and Nominating. This provides checks and balances to the museum's operations, while all are represented, equally heard and respected. When financial shortfalls became an issue at HRM, those overseeing expenses and the endowment took action before the situation became dire, advising the full board and implementing necessary adjustments — more fundraisers, painful staff cutbacks, shorter hours, fewer exhibitions. Needless to say, were the sale of significant artworks proposed as a solution to this problem, there would be resounding push back from curatorial staff, collections committee members, and others who understand the art is the heart of the institution.
Director: The leadership of a director who honors and builds upon the institution's history is an essential orchestrator of museum operations. In this open environment, there are no surprises and no dramatic changes of direction executed behind closed doors.
Staff, board and director work hard to raise funds, write grants and engage the community around them. This is how a regional museum succeeds.
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