New leader seeks dialogue to bridge Berkshire Museum's past, future

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PITTSFIELD — Now that the controversial art sales have come to a close, the Berkshire Museum team is focusing on infrastructure needs, and repairing relationships with the local and museum communities, Executive Director Jeff Rodgers said Tuesday.

The sale of 22 works from the museum's collection brought in $53.25 million, about $1.75 million less than allowed by a Supreme Judicial Court order last year.

"We brought all of the art back in-house, so it's all back with us except one piece, which is being conserved, and that will be shipped back to us," Rodgers said. "We are done with that process."

Rodgers, who arrived at the museum about a month ago, said that he has since received emails and Facebook messages from people who were unhappy with the direction the museum had taken but welcomed him to the community, regardless. He extended an open invitation to anyone, including outspoken critics of the museum, to sit down with him and share their thoughts.

"I've worked to set up coffee or drinks or lunches with those folks, making it clear that I want to hear what they have to say about this," Rodgers said.

"I can make that offer right now," he said. "I'm happy to sit down and talk with folks who had concerns about what had happened at the museum, and I'd love to open a dialogue with them."

Rodgers' arrival came at the close of a museum rebranding that polarized the Berkshire arts community. During summer 2017, former Executive Director Van Shields announced a $66 million plan to fund the museum's "New Vision." Some who opposed the venture were upset that it would be financed through the sale of 40 pieces of art that included Norman Rockwell works.

Rodgers, who previously served as provost and chief operating officer of the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Fla., said that he had been unaware of the controversy that arose from the plan until he had learned of Shields' job becoming available. The job search prompted him to do research into the subject, and since being hired, he has delved even deeper into the backstory that led to the New Vision.

Rodgers said he supports the idea of "activating the collection," using an interdisciplinary approach to blending natural sciences, history and art to build narratives.

"Being able to look holistically at that really speaks to a rich museum experience," he said. "I'm behind that 100 percent. I think that was the strongest part of the New Vision."

Other proposals, such as architectural changes to the Crane Room, are not in the plan.

"Some of the architectural ideas that had been floated early, those are off the table," he said. "Our concern now is sort of the nonsexy stuff."

At the moment, the biggest project on the museum's to-do list is to put in a new sewer line. The museum is in the midst of a full engineering assessment of the building's physical condition. When that's completed, staff will create five- and 10-year infrastructure plans, he said.

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Some of the profits from the art sales have been put aside, in an infrastructure reserve, to assist with ongoing maintenance, he said. The rest of the profits have gone into holdings to repair a structural deficit, and been allocated toward future renovations of exhibitions.

Any profits from sales over the $50 million mark are in an independent account earmarked for the care of the collection, he said.

As part of the court order, the museum was required to provide the state Attorney General's Office with a final report on the art sales by November. Rodgers said he is completing that report.

"The sale of art did not solve financial problems. It filled a structural deficit that we had," Rodgers said. "We are not just sitting on a Scrooge McDuckian pile of money that allows us to collapse into ourselves and not pay attention to the landscape around us."

Fundraising will continue to be a part of the museum's operation, and a recently formed "engagement team" is taking a look at developing a plan for that work. It has not yet been finalized.

Rodgers said he understands that his role is to build bridges with members of the community who were unhappy with the museum before his arrival.

"The way people felt about this, the way they responded to this, [that's] valid. You cannot argue against how somebody feels about something," he said. "I think all of those arguments and debates have already happened, and my role is to sit down and listen and see if there is a way to find common ground."

In addition to local residents, Rodgers also is working to repair a relationship with the museum community.

In 2017, the Berkshire Museum ended its relationship with the Smithsonian Institution because the planned deaccession of art would have violated guidelines from the American Alliance of Museums.

The affiliation between the two institutions, established in April 2013, provided the Berkshire Museum with Smithsonian resources and reciprocal admissions benefits at participating Smithsonian affiliates.

"Those are relationships that will have to be rebuilt over time as well," Rodgers said. "So, yes, there are going to be some residual repercussions from this in the museum world. I also believe we can overcome those."

Rodgers said that his former museum was a Smithsonian affiliate, and that he has reached out to people at the institute to see what needs to be done to reunite. He doesn't expect it to happen overnight.

"Our job right now is to reestablish ourselves in the museum community," he said. "Fortunately, our model is not based on being able to borrow art and artifacts from other institutions, so it doesn't really put us in a bad position, but of course, we want to be a part of the larger museum community."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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