Berkshire Museum Collections Committee member quits in protest; 'Never did I hear a peep' about art sale plan
PITTSFIELD — As a longtime committee member and former "junior naturalist," Matt Kelly backs the Berkshire Museum's plan to shift its emphasis to science and nature.
But how it would pay for that bothers Kelly, leading him to quit the Collections Committee this month.
As a 14-year member of that panel, Kelly believes he should have been told that 40 works of art would be sold to raise as much as $60 million.
"Never did I hear a peep about how they were going to get there," he said of the museum's proposed "New Vision," a plan to provide expanded programming in science using its collections and new interactive displays.
"I should have put two and two together and figured there would be a cost to this," Kelly said.
Instead, he said, he learned only after the fact from the newspaper that the museum would sell 40 of the most valuable works from its collection, what he termed "the cream of the crop," without notifying its Collections Committee of that plan ahead of a meeting July 11, the day before trustees voted on the deaccession.
And since then, Kelly said, his efforts to obtain information have been blocked.
In a Nov. 10 letter of resignation sent to Van Shields, the museum's executive director, and to Elizabeth McGraw, president of the trustees, Kelly said he was "stunned" to learn of the sale.
"I had no inkling," he wrote. "I strongly felt that something of this magnitude should have been made clear to the members of this committee long in advance."
Kelly said he received a notice of the July 11 committee meeting on July 3. The July 11 meeting date conflicted with family plans to celebrate a child's birthday and his own 30th wedding anniversary, so he did not attend. He says that he assumed the meeting would be routine, since no agenda was provided.
The Eagle obtained a copy of Kelly's letter.
In an interview, Kelly said that in most of his years on the committee, meeting agendas were shared in advance. The notice he received July 3 did not state a reason for the meeting. The panel typically meets three to five times a year on an as-needed basis, he said.
Kelly faults what he sees as a lack of disclosure by museum officials — as well as his inability to get information about what took place at the July 11 meeting.
"I was shocked. We should have known about this," he told The Eagle.
Kelly said he asked repeatedly for minutes from the July 11 meeting, as well as copies of the committee's policies.
The museum declined to provide them, he said.
The Eagle asked the museum's spokeswoman Thursday to explain why the Collections Committee did not receive advance notice that trustees planned to sell the artworks.
In response, the museum provided this comment from Craig Langlois, co-acting director: "We thank Matt for his service to the museum."
The museum also did not respond to questions about why a Collections Committee member was not allowed to read minutes from a meeting he was not able to attend, and was also denied access to its written policies.
The statement from Langlois instead addressed current litigation over the deaccession. The Attorney General's Office is challenging the sales in Berkshire Superior Court and in the Massachusetts Appeals Court, where it won a preliminary injunction Nov. 10 that stopped the planned sale of museum works in four separate auctions this week at Sotheby's in New York City.
Earlier, Judge John A. Agostini denied the state's request to halt the auctions, pending further legal review by the Attorney General's Office.
"The Board of Trustees acted responsibly and within its rights to secure the Museum's future, as Judge John Agostini concluded after a thorough and thoughtful review of the record," the statement from Langlois read.
He and Nina Garlington are serving as co-acting directors while Shields is on medical leave.
Kelly said the Collections Committee has traditionally played a key role in deciding what comes and goes from the South Street institution. He said he was invited onto the panel around 2003 by former museum employee Thom Smith.
It was Smith who rallied young people to the museum years ago, Kelly said, and oversaw the junior naturalist program Kelly joined as a boy of 6, paying nickel dues and riding a bus downtown to attend meetings.
Years later, when he joined the Collections Committee, Kelly took special interest in objects on the science and nature side of the ledger. Upon joining, he said, he was told his job was to help decide what belongs in the collection.
"I wanted to do a good job and be conscientious. I wanted to do the right thing based on my perspective," he said.
Smith said he remained friends with Kelly long after the younger man received his bronze medal as a graduate of the junior naturalists program.
"His interest in the museum never waned," Smith said of Kelly. "He's always been interested and proved it by continuing on in the Collections Committee."
In the years they served together on the panel, Smith said, "we weren't thinking of disposing of anything."
He said Kelly asked for his opinion about leaving the committee. "I said I wouldn't fault you for resigning," Smith said, because of the deaccession. "It came as quite a shock to me. I didn't know that this was being done — and there may have been a reason for that."
When the issue of selling three Russian paintings came up a few years into his service, the committee was consulted.
"We voted on big things," Kelly said, then addressed the pending deaccession. "It just kind of miffed me that I was on the committee that was supposed to be told when something leaves."
When former Collections Manager Leanne Hayden was with the museum, committee members received detailed agendas — and often color photos of the works to be discussed, Kelly said.
They decided together what to acquire as well as retire — or loan — from the collection. Any sales proceeds were used for the good of the collection, as the museum's rules at the time required.
In their July meeting, trustees altered those rules, allowing use of proceeds for operations. They also removed a policy of first offering art leaving the collection to other museums to purchase.
In the weeks after the sales were announced, Kelly said he pressed for information on what took place at the Collections Committee meeting July 11.
Though he failed to obtain minutes, he asked Garlington, the current co-acting director, whether an actual vote took place at the meeting he didn't attend.
"She said, 'Well, there was an understanding,'" Kelly said.
Garlington said in an email Thursday that she remembers the conversation differently.
"We discussed the Collections Committee meeting, and he asked many questions, which I said I would get answered," Garlington said.
On Thursday, after receiving questions from The Eagle about the July 11 meeting, the museum released the draft minutes of that session.
The three-page document lists those who attended the one-hour meeting.
The last item of business concerned the deaccession of 40 works.
That part of the meeting began with Eric Korenman, a trustee who served as the committee's chair, introducing the deaccession of works from the permanent collection.
"Van Shields made a presentation to the committee providing background and his recommendation," the draft minutes read.
Ethan Klepetar, a trustee and committee member, then moved that the trustees deaccession the 40 works. The minutes list the artworks in a grid.
"Jay Bikofsky seconded, all members were in favor," the minutes read.
In a statement Thursday, Korenman said the museum decided to release the draft minutes "in the interest of making the record clear."
He said nine of the committee's 14 members were present. In addition to Bikofsky, Klepetar and Korenman, they included Ursula Ehret-Dichter, Nancy Feldman, Donna Krenicki, McGraw (the trustees' president), Suzanne Nash and Melissa Scarafoni.
Museum staff present included Shields, Garlington, Langlois, Logan Recchia and Jason Verchot.
"It was a unanimous vote of those present," Korenman said in the statement, then addressed Kelly's resignation.
"We appreciate Mr. Kelly's service on this advisory committee and his opinion on the deaccession. A majority of committee members supported this decision as critical to securing the future of the Berkshire Museum," he said in the statement.
Kelly said late Thursday that he was surprised to see the committee's work described as "advisory."
As he continued to seek answers this summer from the museum, Kelly was eventually referred to the museum's attorneys.
In one exchange with those lawyers, Kelly said, he was told he was suspected of sharing information with "third parties" and that affected his ability to receive answers.
In his resignation letter, Kelly confirmed that he had been contacted by representatives of the Attorney General's Office and had complied with their requests for information.
"It just got to be weird," he said, then asked, "Am I some kind of pariah?"
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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