Never mind about grant, Berkshire Museum tells state arts group

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PITTSFIELD — As millions of dollars flow from art sales, the Berkshire Museum no longer wants a state grant — at least this year.

Last fall, the Massachusetts Cultural Council suspended a $22,100 allocation to the Pittsfield museum, after Attorney General Maura Healey began an investigation into the museum's plan to sell 40 works of art from its collection.

Despite a lawmaker's earlier appeal to the council to release the funding, the museum notified the agency last week that it can keep the money, according to Greg Liakos, the council's communications director.

The $22,100 grant represents 0.04 percent of the $55 million the museum is allowed to raise through art sales, under terms worked out between the museum and Healey's office and sanctioned in April by Supreme Judicial Court Justice David A. Lowy.

In late April, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, remained adamant that, with Healey's investigation complete, the MCC should pony up the promised funding under its 2018 Cultural Investment Portfolio program.

"It's time for the MCC to release those funds," Farley-Bouvier told The Eagle. "These are funds paid for by the residents of the Commonwealth. This is where they belong."

Farley-Bouvier said Tuesday that the museum notified her last week that it planned to withdraw from grant consideration.

"They felt it was better to start the new year fresh," she said. "The idea is to start fresh next year in rebuilding this relationship — those are my words."

The lawmaker said she anticipated that the museum would seek council funding later.

"This is not a once-and-for-all thing," Farley-Bouvier said.

Carol Bosco Baumann, the museum's spokeswoman, said officials decided to let current auctions at Sotheby's take place without seeking restoration of the grant.

"As those sales are being completed, the decision was made to withdraw acceptance of that grant while the museum charts how best to pursue its plans," she said. "We look forward to working with the MCC in the future."

Funding pulled

The full Massachusetts Cultural Council met Tuesday. The agenda for that session had, at one point, included the issue of Berkshire Museum funding — until the museum notified the agency that it no longer wants the allocation.

The funding was sidelined in September when Anita Walker, the agency's executive director, took the museum to task over its planned art sale. Walker questioned the need for the money and alleged that museum trustees were failing a duty of stewardship to their collection.

"We believe that public trust is the foundation of the institution of the nonprofit cultural organization," Walker said at the time. "Once that starts to erode, then I think our institutions are eroded."

Relations deteriorated between the agency and the museum. The museum canceled a planned October strategy session with Walker's team after the council's leader went public with her criticism in September.

For its part, the museum faulted Walker for not helping it address what it termed an existential financial crisis — the same case it made successfully to Healey and the SJC.

"The Massachusetts Cultural Council's decision to not support the Museum ... is deeply disappointing," the museum's board said in September, "and betrays its stated objective of helping organizations grow and change."

At the October session with agency officials, the museum was expected to provide more evidence of its financial condition, along with details of its proposed "new vision."

Nonprofits do not have to reapply annually to the Cultural Investment Portfolio grant program. Recipients must meet eligibility requirements, but the size of any organization's endowment is not a factor, according to a review by The Eagle of the program's requirements.

"The Cultural Investment Portfolio (CIP) provides unrestricted operating support to organizations and programs with public cultural programming that benefits Massachusetts residents," according to the agency's published program guidelines.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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