Top Stories of 2018: No. 5: Berkshire Museum rewrites its financial narrative

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PITTSFIELD — When the sun rose on the first day of 2018, one of Berkshire County's premier cultural organizations remained snowed under.

A probe by the Attorney General's Office into Berkshire Museum operations was intensifying, seven months after trustees unveiled a plan to sell up to 40 works from their collection, including two beloved paintings by Norman Rockwell, to fix their finances. Yes, the museum won an early round against two lawsuits. But appeals loomed.

And in this winter of discontent, Zenas Crane's pride and joy, a handsome century-old building on South Street in Pittsfield, was ailing. Given a recurring deficit, its stewards said they couldn't afford repairs.

"Ceilings leak, walls weep, interior floors grow icicles, and storage areas are threatened by mold," the museum's lawyers wrote in a filing to the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County, once they overcame Attorney General Maura Healey's objections.

What a difference a year makes.

The museum closes 2018 having tucked away net proceeds from art sales of $53.25 million, most of that money stashed in an endowment designed to help cover future budget gaps. But trustees will also plug those ceiling leaks.

For trustees, a year that began amid legal battles closes with steps toward a less fractious 2019, as what editors of The Eagle deemed to be the top story of 2017 eases into history.

Before the new year is out, a book about the museum's sale of art is due from Timothy Cahill, a journalist and arts writer.

Though Cahill opposed the sale, in two guest columns in The Eagle, he says his book, to be brought out by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers toward the end of 2019, will take a fresh look. The working title: "Selling Norman Rockwell: Art, Money, and the Soul of an American Museum."

"For me now, this episode is history. My obligation is to present the story thoroughly and in good faith to the facts," Cahill said. "I don't serve readers in the future if I just repeat the talking points of both sides of the debate."

He adds, "This is an important moment in Berkshires cultural history — and may even be a watershed moment. I'm interested in discerning that big picture and see where things fall."

Some pieces remain aloft. Up through most of November, it was still possible that the museum would sell more art. The net proceeds it reports fall $1,750,000 short of the amount the SJC approved.

Four days after Thanksgiving, trustees voted to halt further sales. Elizabeth McGraw, the board's president, said it was time to get back to the business of running a lively and successful museum.

"Our work ahead is focused on making this Museum ever more interesting, inspiring and engaging to the broad community in the region it serves," she said in a statement after a trustees meeting Nov. 26.

Year ahead

If all goes according to plan, the new year will bring a new executive director to replace David Ellis, a veteran museum leader tapped in June to temporarily replace Van Shields.

Shields, who helped trustees engineer the controversial art sales, left abruptly in June, after almost seven years in the post, his exit cushioned by what the museum disclosed this month to be a $92,000 parting payment. Shields and his wife, Peggy Rivers, sold their Pittsfield home this fall and left the area.

Shields stood at center stage in July 2017, when the museum announced that a "New Vision" would guide its programming. But the museum hired an outside spokeswoman, Carol Bosco Baumann, after community opposition arose to the sale, particularly from the group Save the Art-Save the Museum.

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Though Shields appeared at museum events and some court hearings in his final year, he was no longer the public face of the museum's act of reinvention. In a state tax document released Dec. 7, the museum revealed that it paid Baumann $54,493 as a communications consultant in the last six months of 2017.

Today, a different consultant is not quite halfway through a search for a new director. When trustees hired Brent D. Glass LLC in September, the museum said the firm's search could stretch out until March or as late as June. The firm accepted applications until Nov. 21; a post on its website indicates that the outreach has ended.

"We are not conducting any searches at this time," the site announces.

In its recruiting materials, Glass' firm had good news to share, after the sale of 22 museum works at auctions in May and November and in private transactions, all of them aided by Sotheby's.

"The Museum is financially secure with a substantial capital budget, providing the next leader of this 100+ year-old institution an opportunity to expand its relevance, status, and influence," the museum's job description said.

It emerged this fall that the museum would hold fast to a shift in how it presents exhibitions. But it will not pursue the physical transformation Shields envisioned, including major renovations to the Crane Room at the heart of the building.

"All existing plans and preliminary drawings for building repairs and renovations are under review," Baumann told The Eagle this fall. "The board remains committed to the interdisciplinary interpretive plan."

The job description framed that ambition this way: "[The] Executive Director will encourage the interdisciplinary interpretation of the Museum's collections in art, history, and the natural sciences by providing experiences that are fresh and relevant in a changing world."

At the same time, the new director will be asked to rebuild its relationship with the community and the wider museum world, which came down hard on the institution for going against accepted practice by selling works from its collection for financial rather than artistic reasons.

The museum countered that it held the right to sell what it owned. Still, weeks after revealing its planned sales, the museum withdrew from a program overseen by the Smithsonian Institution.

It isn't known whether the museum suffered reputational damage that limited the pool of applicants.

The job description includes a call to healing. The next museum chief, it says, will "serve as the public face and spokesperson of the organization, clearly articulating the Museum's mission and activities; fostering and maintaining a close working relationship with regional and national museums and other related institutions."

After auctions in May, trustees moved on their own to address rifts.

In a May 31 letter to the community, trustees said they wanted to "move beyond what has been a contentious and sometimes bitter debate. ..."

They pledged to respect the museum's collection and to be responsive to the community.

"We are committed to doing so, transparently, cooperatively, and thoughtfully, to regain public trust and confidence where it has been lost," the letter said.

The new leader will tackle that and other tasks without the help of Nina Garlington, who was named chief of staff when Shields left. Garlington has notified trustees that she plans to leave the museum in the spring, according to Baumann.

The person hired will step in as the museum relaunches a capital fundraising campaign put on hold last year and as it moves to undertake a variety of building improvements.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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