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Berkshire Museum bids bittersweet farewell to current executive director

A pedestrian passed the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. Ben Garver/The Berkshire Eagle via AP/File 2017

The executive director of the Berkshire Museum, which drew criticism after it announced last year a plan to sell millions of dollars’ worth of artworks to fund a reinvention plan, is retiring, and a nationwide search for new leadership will be launched.

The museum, a 115-year-old cultural institution in Pittsfield, announced the retirement of Van Shields on Thursday.

Shields had spent seven years working to increase the organization’s relevance to the community and build up its financial stability, a museum statement said.

“I have been honored and privileged to lead this extraordinary museum and its talented staff,” Shields said in the statement. “Working with a board of dedicated and smart volunteers, along with community partners who share our belief in the museum’s power to transform lives, we have charted a course that will well serve the museum and this community.”


During his tenure, the museum — which showcases vibrant art, ancient history, and natural science — increased its interdisciplinary interpretation programs, launched an early childhood education program, and expanded its educational services to nearby schools, the museum said.

Shields also secured the largest government grant and largest foundation gift in the institution’s history, the statement said.

The museum announced in July 2017 it wanted to sell 40 artworks to help fund a $60 million reinvention plan. Attorney General Maura Healey stepped in to investigate the controversial sale’s legality, ultimately agreeing in February to allow the museum to raise up to $55 million.

So far, the museum has already sold 13 pieces of art and raised $42 million, the Globe reported. This includes its popular Norman Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” which was sold to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles in April.

Earlier this week, the museum announced it would sell nine more artworks as it seeks to reach the $55 million target, the Globe reported.


The museum has said it needs the infusion of money to “secure the museum’s future, including funding the endowment, needed repairs to the museum building and the interpretive approach to the collection.”

“We are grateful for Van’s leadership and vision, especially through a challenging time,” Elizabeth McGraw, president of the museum’s board of trustees, said in Thursday’s statement. “Van helped chart a course to secure the museum’s future, true to our mission and responsible to our community. We wish our friend well in his retirement.”

In Shields’ absence, David Ellis, who has worked for the museum for more than 30 years, will step up as the interim executive director.

Ellis has served as the president of the Museum of Science from 1990 to 2002, the interim president of the Boston Children’s Museum, and interim executive director of the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the statement said.

“I look forward to working with the Board of Trustees, the museum leadership, and the staff to make the transition that secures the course to a strong and sustainable future,” Ellis said in the statement.

The museum is also welcoming another staffing change: The chief engagement officer, Nina Garlington, will be supporting Ellis as chief of staff. In her new role, she’ll be responsible for coordinating museum planning and programming across departments.

Elise Takahama can be reached at elise.takahama@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @elisetakahama.