The Berkshire Museum defends its most important asset: its open doors
WHEN THE financially struggling Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., publicly announced last July that it had decided to sell 40 items from its vast holdings — a 40,000-piece collection encompassing art, science, and history — it knew there would be pushback. Among the pieces being put up for auction were two wonderful Norman Rockwell paintings, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop,” donated to the museum decades earlier by the artist himself. Rockwell is beloved in the Berkshires, where he lived for many years. The prospect that those paintings might be acquired by a private buyer was bound to trigger controversy.
Did it ever.
The museum’s trustees and directors have been savaged not just for agreeing to deaccession the Rockwells and some other artworks, but because they intend to use the proceeds to save the Berkshire from being shuttered. They propose to ensure the museum’s future by creating a $40 million endowment, funding an overdue renovation of the building, and upgrading the exhibits with 21st-century technology. Many people would regard such a plan — which the Berkshire board shaped during two years of intensive discussion with hundreds of community residents — as the very essence of prudent, thoughtful management.
But in the supercilious guild of museum elitists, deaccessioning items from a collection for any purpose other than acquiring more important items is a hanging offense. The Berkshire’s directors have been slammed for making the museum’s survival their top priority. The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors rebuked them for being “a poor steward of their collection.” The director of the Peabody Essex Museum charged them with an “egregious violation of public trust.”
One prominent art critic, the Los Angeles Times’s Christopher Knight, sneered that the museum’s board had “lost their minds” for not realizing that they had a duty to go out of business.
“Don’t sell the art. Do close the museum,” he commanded. “Spend the next several years responsibly overseeing the dispersal of the collection.” Elizabeth McGraw, the museum’s chairman, tells me people have said the same thing to her face. A Berkshire socialite confronted her at a reception: “I think the museum should close, and the art should stay in the public.”
But does anyone believe that culture and the arts in Pittsfield will be better off if the Berkshire Museum agreed to commit a genteel suicide and let its treasures be parceled out to other institutions? When the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, facing a similar financial crisis, closed its doors in 2016, its collections were dispersed to venues in North Carolina, upstate New York, and Washington, D.C. Almost nothing remained in the Massachusetts community once famous as the nation’s “Mill City.” Is that really what the condescending pooh-bahs of museum propriety wish for Pittsfield — not the loss of 40 items, but of all 40,000?
AFTER MONTHS of following the Berkshire Museum saga from afar, I went to western Massachusetts to get a closer look.
It was cold and windy when I arrived in Pittsfield on a recent Sunday. The streetscape outside the museum was drab, its bleakness reflecting the community’s economic struggles. The once-plentiful manufacturing jobs have dried up, the region suffers from a persistent brain drain, and half the kids in the school system come from economically disadvantaged homes.
But inside the museum was an oasis. The place was alive with engaged and curious kids. Some were busy in Lab 102, learning about topography by physically manipulating the sand in a model to form hills, valleys, and rivers, observing how each shift in landscape forces animals — digitally projected from above — to change their patterns of movement. Across the museum’s main floor, a little girl sat on her father’s lap, pencil at the ready, a colorful 18th-century Florentine urn displayed in the case before her. In the Curiosity Incubator upstairs, other kids were marveling at Pahat, a 2,300-year-old Egyptian mummy, and using the 5-foot-tall touch screen to bring up graphics explaining how he was embalmed. Down in the aquarium, a couple of teenagers got to hold a gecko, and were invited to help feed the red-footed tortoise.
There are a lot of cool things at the Berkshire Museum. There are also a lot of problems, from the antiquated heating system and leaky roof to the fiscal hole left when the big industries left town and their corporate donations dried up. Battling an annual operating deficit of more than $1 million, the museum has worked valiantly to raise funds. But it doesn’t have the tony national reputation and deep-pocketed patrons enjoyed by so many of the region’s powerhouse institutions, such as Tanglewood, the Clark Art Institute, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, or the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
IN THE dogmatic world of the deaccession police, the Berkshire would be better off dead if the price of staying alive for decades to come is to sell some artworks today. McGraw — who, like everyone on the museum’s board, is an unpaid volunteer — knows better. “It was a tough, tough decision to put these works up for sale,” she says. But selling that small fraction of the Berkshire’s art, the board concluded, “would allow us to protect our most important asset: our open doors.”
Attorney General Maura Healey, whose office oversees nonprofits and charities, was notified of the museum’s deaccessioning plans in June, weeks before it was announced publicly. She rightly raised no objection. Not until four months later, after art-world purists had created a tumult, did Healey’s office go to court. It procured an injunction to halt the auction while it conducted an investigation of the Berkshire’s planning process.
Yet it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Healey’s investigation became a quest to find something, anything, to justify her belated opposition to the Berkshire’s plan. It isn’t only museum partisans who say so. Ruling on the initial request for an injunction in November, Superior Court Judge John Agostini pronounced it “bewildering” that Healey would try to stop the sale when her office “has uncovered no evidence of bad faith, no conflict of interest, [and] no breach of loyalty.”
The injunction expires Jan. 29. What happens next is anyone’s guess. But this much is clear: Each additional delay brings the Berkshire’s demise closer. Nothing is going to hurt Norman Rockwell’s paintings. But the museum he loved enough to give them to is fighting for its life, and time is running out.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.