Mark Richard Leach: Museum is poised to violate public trust
MATTHEWS, N.C. — I am a Pittsfield native and the Berkshire Museum was an especially meaningful part of my youth. I was inspired as much by Albert Bierstadt's "Connecticut River Valley" as I was the displays of indigenous rock specimens or dioramas carefully constructed to portray once living things preserved and displayed in a facsimile habitat for study and appreciation.
I was raised at the end of Bushy Road and our lush, forested back yard also included an interconnected series of ponds. Whether a nature scene, geologic or natural specimen, witnessed alone for its uniqueness or part of my holistic museum experience, together they shaped my understanding of place. Over time, my knowledge grew and my appreciation for the interconnectedness of the past with our present made me alert to the inescapable changes of our modern-day society. But it also taught me more.
Paintings aren't merely creative fictions or sentimental indulgences, though some surely are. They are also records of our lived experience and worthy of our study. They contain evidence of American history — of our land use, of our innovations in agriculture and animal husbandry. They illuminate our humanness, our evolved sense of the world and our values, among other social, historical and economic circumstances of the time.
Years ago, I was a Norman Rockwell subject. I remember him, the care that I observed that he took in every aspect of his creative work and his dedication to do civic and cultural good. I can't imagine that the artist would ever have given his works to the Berkshire Museum or endorsed their sale willingly. He gave these masterful paintings with the intention to sustain community spirit, civic pride, to remind us of our collective past and with the understanding that the public trust would be served by forever making them available to the Pittsfield community and its greater Berkshire region.
As a former museum administrator I am empathetic to the Berkshire Museum's financial circumstances. I am, however, alarmed to learn that for a decade the museum's trustees faced and accommodated a 1m structural deficit. Much has been made of the "fiduciary" role that the board is now taking by selling 40 masterpieces to secure the museum's future. This move is neither responsible to nor thoughtful about the myriad of unintended consequences that the museum will face in its future.
In her environmental treatise, "The Silent Spring," author Rachel Carson warned of the dangers of pollution and the insidiousness of toxic substances conveyed through the water table, out of view of our day-to-day powers of observation. Perhaps an allegory for this civic moment, one cloaked in the rhetoric of responsible fiduciary action, the museum's determination to execute on its plan should cause the citizens of Pittsfield and the region enormous concern. One negative turn in the stock market may place the institution's endowment (which it proposes to establish with the pending sale of its painting masterpieces) under water, causing the trustees to invade the fund's principal. Why would they decide to do that, you ask? Because a once charitable donor base who willingly and generously made contributions to support the museum's mission lost trust and is no longer willing to do so. When public trust is broken there are consequences.
I invite your readers to take a moment to review "The Art of Relevance," Nina Simon, TEDxPaloAlto — https://youtu.be/NTih-l739w4. There are other ways to solve this challenge.
Mark Richard Leach is a museum consultant, arts writer and curator.
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