Lynn Villency Cohen: What's next for Berkshire Museum?

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STOCKBRIDGE — With lawsuits working their way through the court system, the ongoing Berkshire Museum deaccessioning debacle is not nearly over. With the new year upon us, let's take stock in the narrative that has unfolded so far, as a revisit may help to shape a way forward, to move this institution to a state of normalcy.

What happened since the sale announcement has been an unearthing and piecing together of the museum's actions and motivations, reported reguarly by The Berkshire Eagle. We watched as Van Shields and the Board pushed the deaccessioning envelope to its limits, choosing a plan to jettison the entire collection with the most beloved, valuable and community-connected works of art for what could be a windfall of $70 million used to fund the annual operations and renovation of the museum. From finance experts carefully examining the data we learned that the museum realistically needed but a small fraction of this number to operate successfully.

The plot to stage a mega deaccession needed a reasonably convincing purpose to justify this sale. Hence the "New Vision" calling for renovating the building and reinventing it as a science focused museum with interactive exhibits for young children, changing the mission and eliminating the art, literally. The speed with which this unfolded after the Fall 2016 Board retreat, held to discuss the size and number of works to be deaccessioned, was quite remarkable. The plan would be executed during the 2017 spring months to ensure a full scale marketing campaign by Sotheby's.

Steamrolled through

As such, a swift timeline of actions followed. First off, the 40 works were packed, crated and trucked off to Sotheby's as early as May 2017, months prior to the July announcement of their sale and official Board vote. On June 13, Sotheby's contract was signed.

On July 11, the Berkshire Museum's Collection committee met to rewrite the Museum's Collection policy to nullify constraints on selling its works of art. At the same meeting, the committee voted on the 40-work deaccession, conveniently neglecting to send the meeting agenda in advance to members. Then a day later on July 12, the Berkshire Museum Board voted to affirm both the collections policy change and the sale; and with that, a public announcement was made. Talk about speed to steamroll this through!

The Berkshire Museum was caught unprepared for the onslaught of opposition to the sale, the ensuing community outrage, the persistent investigation by news outlets, and a slew of lawsuits filed by the Rockwell family, the attorney general and other private plaintiffs. The museum's response? Ignore the criticism, community outrage, protests in front of the museum, censuring from critically important museum and professional associations, severed association with the Smithsonian Institution, and isolation in the arts community and throughout the Berkshires. For the Berkshire Museum there was no turning back, no engagement, just radio silence in the wake of vehement community protests.

In its ill conceived strategy to steamroll through one of the largest deaccessioning sales in museum history, the leadership of the Berkshire Museum has forsaken the most important element of museum protection and care — the element of trust. With the elements of trust and goodwill discarded, rebuilding the museum to a state of normalcy may take years.

For the moment, let's assume that Massachusetts Appeals Court reverses the lower Court's decision, allowing the plaintiffs' suits to proceed, and ultimately the sale is disallowed. This triggers a look at what may lie ahead in rebuilding the museum.

The first order of business would be to remove all the individuals that have been at the helm, from the executive director to the board members. A removal is fundamentally necessary as this board's reckless decisions have taken a respectable museum, and wounded its reputation and imperiled its functioning. Committees would need to be formed to scrutinize and revitalize operations such as governance, financial, human resources, collections, marketing, communications, community engagement; and education.

Help from colleges

If the financial situation is indeed dire, a more potent rescue strategy may be explored, such as a search for a responsible guardian, likely one of the Massachusetts colleges or universities that can operate, rebuild and restore the Berkshire Museum to its functioning state. The talent, ingenuity, professional and financial resources that a university relationship can bring to the museum, such as UMass, Williams, Smith or Amherst colleges, could lift the Berkshire Museum out of its predicament to the status it deserves. If a guardianship relationship is implemented, it may be easier to attract a terrific museum director and board needed to stabilize the museum and steer it forward.

Finally, to gain the trust of the community, the art focus would need to take precedence, with an eye to the future on delivering critical building upgrades and renovations to support the art and all of the Museum's collections. A creative curator can actually capitalize on the bumpy road these art works have faced, and stage thought provoking exhibits related to the subjects of preservation and community heritage.

The Rockwell paintings and the Hudson River School paintings present a plethora of exhibition possibilities. The two much beloved Rockwell paintings would both provide an enlightening exhibit and an emotional homecoming for the community. The Hudson River School paintings could be an exhibit show stopper, as these works are tied to the area by nearby Catskill Mountains,depicting stunning scenic views so familiar to the Berkshire community.

Alas, it's a new year and a long road ahead. The Berkshire Museum could turn around tomorrow and say it has had a change of heart, forgoing the deaccession plan. Frankly, I'm not holding my breath. But any way you look at it, the possibilities are endless.

Lynn Villency Cohen is an art historian and writer.


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