Newly flush Berkshire Museum seeks public help
Appeal follows final accounting to AG's office on art sale proceeds
This story has been updated to clarify the museum's relationship with a trade group and to correct the timeline of its past Annual Fund appeals.
PITTSFIELD — With investment income now covering one-third of its budget, the Berkshire Museum is back in supporters' mailboxes with an upbeat report — and a different kind of "ask."
The appeal will test public willingness to donate to a nonprofit whose leaders in 2017 opted to close operating deficits by cashing out much of its most valuable works of art.
In his first Annual Fund appeal since joining the museum as executive director last spring, Jeff Rodgers skips what he terms the typical money pitch. It is the second such campaign since the museum raised $53.25 million by selling 22 pieces from its collection.
"This has been anything but a typical year," Rodgers writes.
Trustees insisted that only the sale of art could save their institution from closing amid growing deficits. Selling art to cover expenses, a move considered unethical in the museum world, was opposed locally and nationally.
Today, the museum's new chief insists that community support matters, though he acknowledges that his appeal might meet resistance.
"The museum is in a stronger financial position and I do think people understand that," Rodgers said.
Still, the drive aims to raise $100,000 before wrapping up next month.
"We have said all along that we will continue to rely on fundraising and our investment returns to offset our annual deficit, not replace fundraising," Rodgers told The Eagle in response to questions posed in an interview and by email.
To cover its $3 million budget for the fiscal year that ends Dec. 31, the museum drew $1.44 million in income from a $45 million fund created with art sale proceeds. An additional $8.25 million was deposited with Lee Bank for other uses.
The appeal letter, mailed to 2,016 addresses, comes on the heels of the museum's final report to Attorney General Maura Healey. It had to submit that summary under the agreement its lawyers reached with Healey in early 2018, ending months of dispute.
That 10-page report, by attorney William F. Lee of the Boston firm WilmerHale, says the millions raised by private sales and public auctions of artworks, including two paintings given by the artist Norman Rockwell, "have had an immediate impact, enabling the Museum to become even more accessible to the community it serves."
Lee's report details how sale proceeds will be invested and spent. It lists actions the museum has taken to better manage its financial affairs, including the hiring of top managers and precautions taken to avoid conflicts of interest, as well as ticking off programming accomplishments, fundraising successes and community engagement.
Meantime, two elements of the "New Vision" outlined by the museum in 2017 — it is a dramatic architectural reimagining of the 39 South St. institution and an embrace of digital programming — no longer are priorities, Rodgers said.
Instead, the museum is using its new financial cushion to fix long-neglected building problems.
Of the $1,440,000 drawn this year from the new investment fund, $300,000 has been steered into a building reserve account, Rodgers said. In early spring, the museum will begin work to relocate a 100-year-old sewer line, waterproof exterior walls around its collections area and fix its loading dock.
The museum no longer is considering an overhaul to create atrium space, depicted in renderings as part of the New Vision.
"While we are not planning any major changes to the Crane Room, we are looking into renovations to bring the Crane Room back to its original glory," Rodgers said.
Improvements will be financed for now through the museum's new resources, Rodgers said. "There are no immediate plans for a new capital campaign."
A capital drive planned for 2019 was canceled.
Since arriving April 1, Rodgers says, he has worked to rebuild relations with supporters who broke with the museum over the art sales. Rodgers also is trying to repair the museum's links to the art world. That includes groups that decried the sales.
Last month, Rodgers met in Washington with the Smithsonian Institution to reestablish ties. In September 2017, former Executive Director Van Shields halted a four-year affiliation with the Smithsonian. A spokeswoman for the Smithsonian said at the time that to be one of its partners, museums must comply with standards set by the American Alliance of Museums.
That group and the Association of Art Museum Directors had rapped the museum's plan to sell art.
"I came away feeling very positive," Rodgers said of rejoining the Smithsonian program. "We agreed that we would start a process. We've probably got a little more to prove."
The museum last year renewed its membership in the American Alliance of Museums. Rodgers said he has not yet worked to repair relations with the Association of Art Museum Directors, which in 2018 called on its members to avoid collaborative projects with the Berkshire Museum. The Berkshire Museum is not a member of that association.
"There are no short easy paths here, but there are professional organization relations that we want to re-establish and we are working toward that," Rodgers said.
Closer to home, the museum has not fully defrosted ties with the Massachusetts Cultural Council, after rejecting a previously approved $22,000 grant from the organization in May 2018.
Carmen Plazas, communications manager for the council, said the group is not funding the museum, but the institution can reapply for its Cultural Investment Portfolio program.
In May 2018, a month before leaving his post and a month after selling works at a Sotheby's auction, Shields notified the council that it would withdraw its acceptance of a $22,000 grant for operating support. The previous fall, the group's leader, Anita Walker, asked museum trustees to halt plans to sell art.
The museum did apply this year for the Massachusetts Cultural Council's Projects grant program. The application was deemed to be incomplete because it did not include a required budget, Plazas said.
Save the Art
Relations also have not thawed with some community members who condemned the art sales.
Members of the citizens group Save the Art say they want trustees to fulfill a May 2018 pledge to be more open.
"We are committed to doing so, transparently, cooperatively, and thoughtfully, to regain public trust and confidence where it has been lost," the trustees said in an open letter at the time. "We urge others to join us in that spirit."
Members of Save the Art say the museum has not lived up to that promise.
"The Museum has not offered a meaningful response to the issues raised by [Save the Art] and others in the community questioning the sale, who clearly felt outraged and a sense of betrayal," the group said in a statement provided to The Eagle. "And despite requests dating back to the announcement of the contract with Sotheby's in July of 2017, there has been no public meeting or open forum with Save the Art and our supporters."
"There is no clarity around the annual operating budget, deployment of the endowment, and why fundraising remains vital to the Museum's future with $53 million in the bank," the group said in its statement. "In short, Save the Art regrets the loss of the art treasured by and integral to Pittsfield and surrounding regional communities."
Rodgers said he has met informally with people to restore trust in the museum. He said he believes those sessions help swing public opinion, one person at a time.
"My approach has been pretty much a personal one. Folks who popped in to the museum and just wanted to meet me to say hello and express how they felt about what had gone on," he said. "I found the whole process to be very positive. It feels good."
Several leaders of Save the Art say a gulf remains.
Carol Diehl, an artist and author, said trustees sold art that it held in trust.
"It belonged to the community and was stolen and sold," she said. "So, no, I won't be going. If my house were robbed, would I want to visit the robbers in my empty old home?"
Hope Davis, a member of Save the Art, said she still mourns the loss of the 22 works.
"I continue to be outraged. The fact that the board continues to speak about repairing the fences reveals their complete lack of understanding of just what the art collection meant to the community it was entrusted to serve," she said in an email in response to questions. "The pain runs deep — this was a theft that continues to cause pain."
Davis said she has not stopped in at the museum, as others have, to meet Rodgers. "Nor am I likely to visit. I've taken a pass on a lecture I was interested in attending there because walking through those doors is utterly distasteful to me."
Sharon Gregory, of Great Barrington, a Save the Art member and finance expert, said she believes the museum's collection is now secondary to its mission.
"The museum has made a decision to use the proceeds of the art sale to convert the museum into a community center and a children's museum," she said by email.
The museum counters this claim. Lee's report and Rodgers' fund appeal cite examples of programming initiatives, including an exhibition marking the centenary of women's suffrage called "She Shapes History."
For her part, Gregory believes the deaccession of premier works hollowed out the institution.
"The loss of its serious, valuable collection precludes it from ever being considered an art museum again," she said. "From that point of view, there is no healing."
In his appeal letter, Rodgers refers not to an art sale, but to "our recent deaccessioning." His message is that the museum needs donations, from residents as well as businesses and foundations. Giving affords people an opportunity to engage with a cultural center they value, he said.
Asked whether he sought to avoid using the word "sale" in his appeal, Rodgers said the choice wasn't deliberate.
"I came in after all of this happened," he said.
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.