Two former trustees rap decisions by Berkshire Museum board
PITTSFIELD — Trustees allowed debate over the Berkshire Museum's financial challenges to snowball into an excessive art sale, two former board members tell The Eagle, as officials backed a costly shift to interactive exhibits based on thin evidence.
Carol Riordan and Nancy Edman Feldman say that while the museum's money problems were real, the Pittsfield institution could have ensured its future with far less than the $55 million it is allowed to raise through sales under terms of an agreement with Attorney General Maura Healey.
Both fault trustees and Executive Director Van Shields for not doing enough to right the museum's finances through fund appeals and other means.
"I was not going to sell the assets of the organization before trying everything," said Riordan, a Pittsfield resident who served as treasurer of the board of trustees. "I care. I care about the community and I care about the museum."
In her view, the museum moved too quickly to cash in on its collection, a view also held by Feldman.
"It wasn't necessary to have all that money," the Great Barrington resident said.
The two women quit the board last year in protest, following the trustees' July 12 vote to sell up to 40 works from its collection. In auctions and private sales in April and May, the museum raised more than $42 million.
In recent wide-ranging interviews, Riordan and Feldman expressed their love of the museum, which they said led them to join the board and then, over time, to question plans that took shape in 2016 and 2017 to sell works of art and use proceeds for operational costs, in defiance of museum field practices.
Riordan abstained from the board's July 12, 2017, vote, then resigned. Though she differs with what the board decided, Riordan believes members acted in good faith.
"I don't think anyone had but the best of motives," she said of trustees.
Feldman said she went along with a vote July 11 to change the museum's collections policy, but regrets that now, saying she struggled personally to speak out. The next day, Feldman intentionally missed the vote to sell art.
"At this point, you feel as a board member that it's done. There was no way I could stop it," she said. "I couldn't bring myself to get there."
The women's views offer a counterpoint to the story — that of an existential financial crisis — told by the museum in public statements and legal filings over the past year.
Nonetheless, they represent a minority view. When trustees voted to proceed with art sales last summer, the vote was 17 in favor, along with Riordan's abstention and four members absent.
And since then, Healey's office closed a monthslong probe saying the museum had proven its need to raise as much as $55 million as a hedge against deficits, address building needs and pursue renovations.
While Elizabeth McGraw has for a year advocated for art sales as board president, she was at first fiercely opposed to them, the two former trustees said.
Feldman said McGraw told fellow trustees, in one meeting at the museum: "Sell the Rockwells? Over my dead body."
Another trustee present at the meeting confirmed hearing that remark.
McGraw disputes the wording, but acknowledges she was so against the idea of selling works that she at one point said she would quit rather than back the sale of two paintings given to the museum by artist Norman Rockwell.
McGraw said this past week the choice to sell artworks was indeed difficult, but she became convinced it was needed.
Riordan said the board relied on attorney Mark S. Gold to provide a legal justification for the sales. Gold has written widely about the difference between ethical and legal standards regarding museum collections. He spoke in May about approaches to art sales at a museum conference in Arizona.
"Mark was the primary voice for that," Riordan said. "He was the expert brought in."
Both Rockwell paintings were later sold — "Shuffleton's Barbershop" in a private deal backed by Healey with the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and "Blacksmith's Boy — Heel and Toe" to an unidentified buyer at a Sotheby's auction.
Trustees have not announced whether they will set future sales, as allowed under the petition approved in April by a Supreme Judicial Court justice. The board is expected to take up the issue at a meeting Thursday.
Though she's been off the board for months, Riordan has followed legal developments in the museum case, including the breakthrough reached in early February, when Healey's office agreed to let sales proceed after months of opposition in court briefs, as lawyers working for the attorney general investigated the museum's actions.
"I don't understand how the attorney general came to the conclusion that the museum needed $55 million to be viable. I feel it can keep its doors open for much less," Riordan said. "I find the outcome of that incomprehensible. I don't understand where they came up with that being needed."
The agreement called for "Shuffleton's Barbershop" to be sold to a nonprofit museum, which was presented by Healey's office as a compromise in the public interest.
Riordan finds that contention weak.
"It would have been in the public with the Berkshire Museum," she said.
Looking back, Riordan takes issue with many steps the museum took on its way to art sales. They include initial work on a master plan, what she sees as gaps in its community outreach and the "party line" eventually reached about a proposed "new vision."
As the process of pondering the museum's future advanced behind closed doors, Riordan said the idea of pursuing a "transformative" change gained steam.
In October 2016, trustees gathered at a retreat reviewed their options, as presented by a consultant.
Securing $25.6 million, an option labeled "opening bid," would allow the museum to close its recurring deficit, address key needs and provide "baseline" renovations.
But the "silver" option, achieved through finding $69.7 million, would allow the museum to tackle a major building renovation, including creation of a new atrium and entrance.
The document describing that range of choices had been sealed as a court document during litigation last fall. It was obtained by The Eagle through legal action.
Riordan said she did not grasp the appeal or value of the silver option. She believes she was a lone voice against the proposed new interpretive exhibition plan, which was to combine multimedia techniques with works from the museum's collection.
"I didn't see something `transformational.' That was the jargon used," she said. "That was the management line — that we can't tweak things at the edges. I didn't agree with how the museum wanted to reposition itself."
She added, "I thought a lot of the process was words that don't mean a lot."
But board members moved ahead, believing dramatic change was both needed and wanted by its patrons. The plan advanced after it was framed as needed to avoid closing, Riordan said.
"People really seemed to think there would be an appeal to this," Riordan said of board members. "The board was convinced that there was no future in continuing to do what we were doing."
While the museum gathered views from 400 area residents — a point the museum restated in last week's open letter — Riordan believes the groups convened did not capture the range of opinion, leaning disproportionately toward families and school-aged children.
As treasurer, Riordan took a special interest in the museum's financial condition.
To manage through austerity, she said she proposed cutting back on some museum offerings to remain financially viable. If community complaints arose, she reasoned, the museum could use that to spur fundraising.
"What is it we could do and stay open?" Riordan said she asked. "The board didn't want to talk about cutting services in the community. That was a nonstarter. In a way, that's admirable."
Another route, she said, included more robust fundraising efforts. But instead, a capital campaign was suspended.
In making its case for art sales, museum officials had lamented a tough fundraising climate in Berkshire County amid the eclipse of large donors. Riordan said that, decades ago, deficits were covered by members of the Crane family.
"Once that stopped happening, the problems were huge," Riordan said.
Still, she said she was distressed when Shields terminated the director of advancement position held by Laurie Werner in early 2016.
"I would have liked to have see the fundraising continue at a high level," Riordan said.
Feldman, the former board member from Great Barrington, also questions the museum's success in fundraising.
Feldman had experience raising money for public television in New York City and later in Boston.
She said she appealed to Shields, the executive director, to let her help tap into donations from people who own second homes in the Berkshires.
"I had a lot of ideas, all of which were shot down. Never did anything happen," Feldman said during a three-hour interview at her home, joined by her partner, Mike Chefetz.
Chefetz's late wife, Sheila, was a past president of the museum board.
Chefetz had long helped his wife run a successful wine auction on the museum's behalf. He said he spoke with the museum about fundraising possibilities but found a lack of interest.
"They just wanted the money and didn't want to do anything," he said.
Chefetz questions the need for the museum to adjust its focus.
"The museum had a solid mission. What was the reason to change it?" Chefetz asked.
"The museum is a live organism that needs to be nourished every single day," he said. "It needs new people, new money, new everything."
David Neubert, of Lenox, one of the trustees brought on after Riordan and Feldman resigned, left the board in late May.
Neubert, a partner with Eagle Bay Advisors, a financial firm, declined to speak about his time on the board, but shared his resignation letter.
In it, Neubert explained that family, work and community duties left him too little time to serve, a concern he said he expressed when being recruited.
"These pressures have only increased since November," he said in the letter. "I first wrote a resignation letter in February 2018 but was asked to stay on until the art sold."
Neubert pledged to continue to support the museum and offered pro bono help on financial questions.
"Thank you for the work you do in protecting and enhancing what is a wonderful resource for our community," he wrote in his May 25 resignation note.
In a short interview, Neubert did seek to clarify that his decision to leave the board is unrelated to a plan by trustees to hire an investment adviser.
"I have no interest in providing that service," he said. "It wouldn't be appropriate for an ex-board member."
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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