Ruth Bass: Hurrying or dragging? Happy medium can be the best tempo

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RICHMOND — What's the hurry? That's always been the question with the Berkshire Museum's plan to sell paintings, shift gears, take a building apart, put it together again. The board of trustees wouldn't accept a million dollars in exchange for a pause to let some outsiders take a look at things. They were in a hurry. And they hurried the pieces of for-sale art to Sotheby's, apparently before revealing which treasures were southbound. Now they want the appeals court to hurry, too.

And yet, by its own estimates, the museum is OK for another eight years, which is quite a bit of time. Some unconnected observers even think the eight years is an exaggeration. Hard to tell when you're just a member who goes to the Festival of Trees and doesn't remember ever seeing the blacksmith painting by Norman Rockwell.

Part of the hurry might be expenses that used up quite a lot of money and had nothing to do with the daily operation of the museum. To wit: A large amount over the past few years went to an engineering firm, presumably in connection with the dream of a New Vision and probably some for immediate needs; and, also, hiring outside public relations experts to "communicate" with the public after news of selling art created a furor. It hardly seems proper for a museum to get a new PR outfit on board when the budget can't include a curator. As time goes on, the PR contract wasn't worth the cost since; in fact, communication hasn't improved much.

Another piece of the hurry was obviously connected to getting everything in place really fast before the general public came out of its customary sleepiness and realized what was going on. One of the curiosities is how all the segments of this project — including some retreats (where, why and how much?) — managed to wriggle past the Berkshire grape vine so smoothly. Top Secret was the word, quite odd from a place that needs public financial support and hundreds of visitors. Did the chief trustee really say, "Loose lips sink ships"? I'm so old that I remember when that was a crucial piece of our lives.

Admittedly, like most small museums, this one has its stodgy aspects — some dull exhibits, some sameness from year to year. One of the worst was a series of dirt pits filled with fake dinosaur bones, in a spacious first-floor room. Plenty of kids dug right into that mess, while other parents tried their best to steer their youngsters past a place where their hands would get dirty while their brains learned little. It was an exhibit that did go away. One of the longest running successes, however, is the Louis Paul Jonas dioramas — American Museum of Natural History in miniature. Old-fashioned and compelling.

Sometimes a small museum has to hang onto exhibits its trustees don't like because the donor has also handed over a pile of cash. That's not any different from the political world, where money talks, sometimes much too loudly.

But perhaps there's another kind of talk. In return for a painting, perhaps Norman Rockwell's gifts should have brought him respect and permanency. It is amazing to think that Shuffleton's Barber Shop is considered one of the artist's finest and it never earned a permanent spot in the front row, complete with a story about Norman and director Stuart Henry hobnobbing in the museum kitchen.

Few Berkshire Museum donors other than Zenas Crane have given anything as valuable as the Rockwell paintings. Thus Zenas Crane should be respected, too — for sharing his wealth with a community for generations. One letter writer recently mentioned that she loved the extensive shell collection that was shown, if memory serves, in that room that eventually had the dirt pits. A former museum director told me the exhibit was much too big for a landlocked city, but was what the donor (who probably gave money as well) wanted to see. Gratitude linked with respect, both sides winning.

Actually, the museum has not always been in a hurry. They weren't in a hurry to discuss their plans for the venerable place, they dragged their feet about listing the art to be sold (at first, it was announced that the items would not be listed publicly at all), they have been reluctant to answer questions on several fronts.

No question that the museum's guardians have the right to hurry or not hurry — they are an independent group. But it would be more in keeping with the dignity of the place, the value of what's involved and the character of the Berkshires if someone could get a bunch of people to a table — a roundtable — to talk about differences and common ground. On the bright side, everyone who doesn't live under a rock now knows where the museum is and what it's up to. From my golfing friend who saves every Norman Rockwell calendar to the woefully misinformed Boston Globe editorial writer, the world knows. A PR pro or a politician would rejoice and gather the players.

Ruth Bass has served on boards for a bank, a town, a land trust and a health group. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.

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