Ruth Bass: Transparency provides the vitamin for building mutual trust
RICHMOND — The awfulness of learning that the Berkshire Museum had contracted to sell art that reflects our Berkshire heritage was hardly absorbed when the mostly silent museum professionals and board members said some 400 community members had participated in focus groups to discuss what was planned.
More than one of us wanted immediately to know who those 400 were. An amazing number of artists popped up to say they weren't in the 400. Others involved in education and cultural events made it clear that they hadn't been asked to focus either. So, when a letter to the editor came from someone who said he had participated in such, it was welcome — but in some ways, its content just extended the awfulness. The letter writer was never told that selling the best of the museum's art was part of the plan they were discussing. Imagine how awful his moment of truth was. It turns out that the letter writer was not actually in a focus group but on a different museum advisory committee, but after the correction was made, he stood by his original statements.
In his letter he made clear that the museum can and should make its own decisions. Yes. He made it clear that the board can sell paintings. Yes. And he made it clear that he felt the information his group received was incomplete and therefore not honest. Apparently, yes to that also. The letter writer indicates that he had no idea what the consequences of the "new vision" would be — that treasure and local history would be shipped to an auction house.
I agree that the museum has every right to run itself. Our various theaters have that right, too. And the rest of our museums, plus Tanglewood and South Mountain and Hancock Shaker Village. But they also enjoy the public trust and the Berkshire Museum has ignored that trust. Like every other cultural institution in the county, the museum is irrevocably linked to the community and the community to the museum. Secrecy and deception crack that link. At a time when many Americans seek more transparency and get less, the museum was opaque.
We have seen the opposite approach over and over in this county, despite the fact that we have a shrinking permanent population and a lot of trouble creating new jobs. Trustees at The Mount told us the Edith Wharton house was in financial peril. Hancock Shaker Village had some shaky moments. Shakespeare and Company was deep in debt. Few believed Mass MoCA would thrive. The Colonial Theater is attended by an incredible cross-section of the population — but it took a major push to get that restoration done. The list goes on. And why are these all still there? They dug in their heels, told their stories and asked for help. And they got it.
The Berkshire Museum makes a mild request every year that its members give something beyond membership dues. They also ask if you'd like to become a "bigger" member — get a couple of extra passes by paying more for the privilege of not paying admission. But I have no recollection of getting a plea for a major donation or a letter announcing a capital campaign to redo the museum or bolster its endowment fund prior to telling us Norman Rockwell paintings were on the block.
One reviewer of the Berkshire Museum tax returns says the present endowment is more than $17 million dollars, although the museum puts the total at about $8 million. Seems like a lot to some of us, but maybe it's not. Still, after looking at the whole financial picture this same reviewer doesn't see the museum's doors closing for lack of funds. Transparency would be a report backing up the museum's claim that its doors could close in eight years without "monetizing" (such a grubby word) its art. (It's hard not to wonder whether the new vision includes a place to park.)
It is legitimate to ask why the museum director's financial plan stayed under the veil until the bride was at the altar. And the answer is that those in charge were afraid of bright, thinking people standing up to object. By the time the public knew what was going on, the sale was a fait accompli. An important segment of the population, summer and year-round, feels the venerable Zenas Crane museum has lost the public trust. Because they didn't trust us.
Ruth Bass has enjoyed the Berkshire Museum's smorgasbord of art, science and history for decades. Her website is www.ruthbass.com
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