Chartock: Time for Berkshire Museum to revisit a bad call

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So let's try to clear up some of the confusion over the sale of 40 of the Berkshire Museum's most treasured possessions in order to fund a renovation and facilitate a refocusing of the museum's mission.

First, let us stipulate that many of the folks behind the decision are good folks. They are not evil. Like any other not-for-profit, they just need money to keep the place going. They are, however, wrong to sell the museum's most valuable assets.

Here are the reasons.

First and foremost is that they are selling their children. None of us would do that.

It would be against the law to sell your children; it is not against the law for a not-for-profit board to sell its most treasured assets. It's just stupid.

They have no idea whether the revised mission of the museum will fly with the public. Sure, you may want a museum devoted to science, but what if your constituents don't like the idea? Why change the mission so that there is nothing left for the people who liked it the old way?

Put in the WAMC context, I personally don't like the opera. We'd have many more people listening during those hours if, like so many other public radio stations around the country, we played something else.

Then there is Terry Gross. I don't like her show either. There are days when the production values of Alternative Radio are so bad that I really want to rip that show right off the air. How about the ultra-conservative Herb London? I almost never agree with him.

In each case, I know that there are many people who have different values than I have. The radio station belongs to the community and I have always believed that there should be something for everyone.

This, I think, brings us to money. Clearly the idea behind the selling of the art is to get enough money to live on. That is a very slippery slope because if the mission change does not work, the Berkshire Museum would find itself up the creek without the proverbial paddle.

Then what are you going to do, sell the building? Once, many years ago when WAMC was struggling, a board member suggested that we sell our building to a group who would use it to collect tax credits. It seemed reasonable but in fact was later determined to be illegal by the courts. My instincts said, "Nothing doing" and I lost a board member over that one.

When a board hires a chief executive, I assume that one of the major reasons for their selection is confidence that the top dog will have a plan to keep the place going. The Berkshire Museum has always been a wonderful institution. Oh, it has had some management and board problems over the years but it really has been a place for families to come and learn and enjoy.

It should not sell its birthright to keep going in the short run but, rather, it must find a way to keep things going in perpetuity. Laurie Norton Moffat and her board have done that at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Jacob's Pillow, Tanglewood, The Mount and so many other institutions have done so as well.

Trust me — each of these institutions has faced financial stress and each has overcome.

Norman Rockwell, as attested to by his children, gave his wonderful paintings to the museum so that the people of Berkshire County and many other places could see and enjoy them. Frankly, it is a disgrace to ignore the great man's wishes.

Even more ominous is the possibility that ignoring the public outcry over this ill-conceived move will lead to less confidence in the museum and fewer people may choose to support or visit the place.

There are times to admit that you need to rethink something. That time is now for the Berkshire Museum.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.




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