Massachusetts Cultural Council mulls return of suspended grant to Berkshire Museum
PITTSFIELD — With art auctions pending, May is poised to bring an eight-figure boost to the Berkshire Museum's balance sheet.
That means tens of millions in new dollars, some already in hand through the sale this month of Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop."
And maybe an additional $22,100, to boot.
That's the sum the museum was to receive this year from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
But the council froze its funding in September. Anita Walker, its executive director, became one of the most vocal critics of the museum's plan to sell up to 40 works of art — opening a rift between the agency and the museum that continued into this year.
Walker said at the time that museum trustees were failing a duty of stewardship to their collection, didn't need a windfall to survive and had violated a public trust.
"We believe that public trust is the foundation of the institution of the nonprofit cultural organization," Walker told The Eagle in September. "Once that starts to erode, then I think our institutions are eroded."
As a sanction, the council put a hold on the museum's allotment of $22,100 as a 2018 Cultural Investment Portfolio member, pending the outcome of a review then underway by the Attorney General's Office.
That review is over — and museum allies want the money.
The sum represents 0.04 percent of the $55 million the museum is now allowed to raise through art sales.
In early February, Attorney General Maura Healey and lawyers in her nonprofits and public charities division dropped opposition to the sale, agreeing that an infusion of cash was needed to safeguard the museum's future.
Walker's own analysts, mining years of their own financial data on the museum and other resources, had questioned the depth of need, saying the museum did not face the threat of closing.
But the condition given for the council's hold on museum money disappeared when Healey's office backed a petition to the Supreme Judicial Court to allow auctions or sales through Sotheby's, which a justice approved April 5.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, began pushing for the MCC to make good on the museum's grant.
"The investigation is clearly complete. It's time for the MCC to release those funds," Farley-Bouvier said. "These are funds paid for by the residents of the Commonwealth. This is where they belong."
The MCC says wheels are turning to lift the "hold," but the outcome isn't a lock.
Greg Liakos, the council's communications director, said the agency is reviewing the museum's grant. He said it will be up to the full council for a vote May 22, after a first stop for consideration early next month in the council's grants committee.
Farley-Bouvier said that process concerns her, since she believes the grants committee could be influenced by Walker's opposition to the museum's art sales, which she renewed as recently as this month.
After Justice David A. Lowy ruled to allow the art sales, under conditions agreed to by the museum and Healey, Walker called the development "a significant loss of cultural heritage to the people of Berkshire County and to the entire Commonwealth."
Walker went on to call the museum's actions "contrary to all nationally accepted museum standards and practices." She pledged to work with "our colleagues in the museum community" to develop ways to protect the state's cultural heritage, suggesting by her wording that the Berkshire Museum wouldn't be in that group.
Harsh words have flowed both ways.
After Walker went public with her criticism in September, after an Aug. 30 meeting about the art sales with museum leaders in Pittsfield, the facility shot back that the council was failing its duty to help a struggling cultural organization.
"The Massachusetts Cultural Council's decision to not support the Museum ... is deeply disappointing," the museum's board said in September statement, "and betrays its stated objective of helping organizations grow and change."
The museum later canceled a planned October session with MCC officials, at which the museum was to provide more information on its financial condition.
After Healey's office settled with the museum, Walker continued to press her case that the art sales ran counter to the public interest.
Lawyers representing opponents to the sales expected the council to file a "friend of the court" brief to the SJC, opposing the museum's petition.
Just before that was to happen, Healey's office told the council to keep clear of the issue, according to Liakos.
"The Attorney General's office instructed us to not file an amicus brief, so we did not out of deference to that office's standing as the Commonwealth's chief legal entity," he said.
Grounds for 'hold'
Under MCC rules, the agency can stop support under the grant program for six reasons, ranging from failure to complete financial filings to not doing enough advocacy work.
The one that applied in the Berkshire Museum's case came from a catchall category: "The MCC may hold a contract for other reasons, but will communicate with the grantee on what needs to be resolved in order to receive its contract/funding."
"We notified the Berkshire Museum that we placed its grant on hold pending the attorney general's investigation and the related litigation," Liakos said. "With that complete, we will take our recommendation on next steps to our council at its next scheduled meeting in May."
Participants in the Cultural Investment Portfolio grant program do not have to apply each year. They must meet a range of eligibility requirements, but the size of an organization's endowment is not a factor, according to a review by The Eagle of the program's requirements.
Funding is based on a tax-exempt organization's operating budget.
"The Cultural Investment Portfolio (CIP) provides unrestricted operating support to organizations and programs with public cultural programming that benefits Massachusetts residents," according to the MCC's published program guidelines. "Cultural Investment Portfolio grants are formula based, as determined by an organization's cash expenses and the total funds allocated to the Cultural Investment Portfolio by the Mass Cultural Council based on the agency's annual legislative appropriation."
The grants for this year were announced in September. The Berkshire Museum is still listed online as receiving its $22,100 share.
Normally, 80 percent of a recipient's funds are disbursed in February or March, with the remainder provided after participating cultural groups file additional reports.
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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