Elizabeth McGraw: Securing the future together
PITTSFIELD — For the first time in many months, the passage of time actually offers hope for all of us determined to keep the Berkshire Museum open. The reason: an agreement reached between the museum and Office of the Attorney General now being considered by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. It's not clear when or how the court will rule, but as we wait, there is an important opportunity for everyone to consider what this could mean for the museum and the people of Berkshire County.
The agreement, if approved, will allow the museum to meet the financial challenges that now threaten to close the doors in only a few years: A dwindling endowment, a weakening fundraising climate and an annual operating deficit of $1.15 million. Fundraising alone - and the museum has raised millions - will not generate the capital needed to ensure the museum's survival. The Office of the Attorney General spent months on an inquiry into the museum, after which it recognized these challenges and concluded that the museum's financial situation was so dire as to justify the deaccession and sale of a small number of works in the museum's collection.
The museum's Board of Trustees reached that conclusion after a two-year Master Planning Process, including extensive input from hundreds of people in the community, financial guidance from a respected non-profit consultant, and consideration of alternatives to deaccession. Board members are passionate supporters of public art. We serve as volunteers, and bring years of relevant experience in finance, arts, education, law, and nonprofit organizations to that service. The Superior Court, in the only thorough judicial review of these issues to date, noted the Board "undertook a deliberate and careful review"; in recognition of the fact that we had fulfilled our fiduciary responsibility.
That didn't make the decision-making any easier. The decision to deaccession and sell even 40 of the 40,000 pieces in the museum's collection was, and remains a difficult but necessary decision - that two of the museum's three Norman Rockwell paintings are included in the deaccession made the decision tougher still.
Beloved work in public view
There are certainly plenty of critics of the agreement reached with the Attorney General, and of the museum's plans for the future. We hear them and have, from the beginning. The agreement before the Supreme Judicial Court recognizes the strong hopes of the Rockwell family and many in the community that Norman Rockwell's Shuffleton's Barbershop would remain on public view. The museum chose a private sale to a nonprofit museum that not only committed to keeping Shuffleton's in the public view, but also, for an extended stay in the Berkshires at the Norman Rockwell Museum — with a strong possibility the painting will come back to museums in the Commonwealth.
The agreement under review by the court structures the sale of the remaining 39 works so that, with the proceeds from Shuffleton's, the museum may be able to reach its financial goal to establish an endowment of at least $40 million and make needed improvements, without necessarily selling all of the remaining 39 works. The agreement sets a goal of raising up to $55 million, the total recognized by the museum board and the Attorney General as needed to secure the museum's financial future. $50 million of the net proceeds to the museum may be used by the museum without restriction. Net proceeds between $50 - $55 million and any that might exceed $55 million will face restrictions on use. The agreement also would allow the museum to sell any of the remaining 39 works in private sale, even for a lower price than would be received through public auction, if that means these works will be accessible to the public.
Our priority has always been to protect what we consider our most important asset: our open doors. Today, those doors open to a museum in urgent need of repair and updating at a time when the educational, cultural and economic contributions it makes are more important than ever, especially to the children and families of Berkshire County. We aim to provide our community, young and old, with compelling experiences in art, science and history. Yes, art -- because art will remain a vital part of our museum and our collection. Science and history, too, because they always have been central to our mission. And that mission remains unchanged: "to bring people together for experiences that spark creativity and innovative thinking by making inspiring, educational connections among art, history and natural science."
Our hope is that the protracted legal battles can end. Continued litigation means more expense and uncertainty that revive the financial threats we are trying to resolve. We want to save a struggling museum in a community that desperately needs what it does and can offer. We believe now is a good time to take a deep breath and step back from the battle lines so we can move forward together.
Elizabeth McGraw is president of the Board of Trustees of the Berkshire Museum.
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