Stress of art sale issue winnows Berkshire Museum board

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PITTSFIELD — Before their board notched a legal victory last week, four trustees had cut short their service to the Berkshire Museum — evidence that disagreement over art sales may have taken a toll inside the organization.

The departures came both early and late in a nine-month quest, reached Thursday, to secure a green light for auctions from the state's top court.

Two trustees departed shortly after the museum announced July 12 it would sell two paintings by Norman Rockwell and 38 other works from its collection to create a financial cushion against recurring deficits.

One of them, Carol Riordan, left the board in August after abstaining from the board's July 12 vote to sell art.

"I resigned because I didn't agree with the strategic direction the museum was taking," Riordan, the board's treasurer, told The Eagle at the time. "I didn't find it transformative."

A month later, trustee Nancy Edman Feldman also quit the panel. Efforts to reach her by telephone and email Friday and Saturday were unsuccessful.

Since then, two other members, Jay Bikofsky and Barbara Krauthamer, left the volunteer board before their terms expired for reasons that have not been made public.

Elizabeth McGraw, the board's president, acknowledged in response to questions from The Eagle that for some members, stress related to the museum's planned auction took its toll between the announcement and an April 5 victory in the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County.

"For a few of our board members, the time commitment demanded by recent events, and the community pressure exerted, exceeded what they could provide or sustain as board members," McGraw said.

The museum declined to say to what degree "community pressure" was a factor in individual trustees' decisions to step away.

Krauthamer, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and dean of its graduate school, could not be reached Friday for comment. A message left with her UMass office was not immediately returned. She did not respond to an email sent to her work addresses on Friday.

Bikofsky, of Stockbridge, had been elected to a three-year term in 2016, meaning he was scheduled to remain with the museum board into 2019.

A family member who answered the phone at his home said he did not want to speak about his reason for leaving the board.

Joan Hunter, of Williamstown, opted not to remain when her two-year term expired last fall, according to the museum. A phone message left Friday at her home seeking comment was not returned.

In a September letter to the editor of The Eagle, Hunter wrote that when growing up in Pittsfield, "the Berkshire Museum was my childhood museum. It truly was a window on the world ... everything in the museum's collection made an impact on me, including the paintings that are now to be sold."

She expressed support for the art sales, but noted that work in her two years with the board was challenging.

"The process has been difficult and painful, but I am confident in the direction the board has taken," she wrote.

McGraw saluted the willingness of board members, past and present, to lend their time and talents to the nonprofit.

"We are very grateful for the volunteer service of our board and the deep expertise and experience they bring to their service as financial experts, artists, educators, lawyers, and leaders in the nonprofit community," she said.

Feldman, the board member who resigned in September, may have left museum service for reasons other than disagreement over auction plans. On July 11, a day before the full board voted to sell 40 works, Feldman signaled her support. She joined that day in a unanimous vote by the collections committee to change the museum's policy to allow the planned transactions.

Though she was to step down in two months, Feldman had participated in years of work by the board, including multiple retreats, to address the museum's financial problems. Trustees landed on the plan to cull art for sale after first exploring a possible merger with Hancock Shaker Village.

Museum officials say the board spent two years working on a master plan, which by 2017 had became known as its New Vision: a shift in emphasis to interactive and multimedia exhibits, using items from its collection.

Of the $55 million the museum was authorized by the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County decision to receive from art sales, all but $5 million can be used for any purpose, including renovations.

After Riordan and Feldman left, they were succeeded in September by two new trustees. Caitlin Pemble and David Neubert were named to two-year terms in September.

In addition to McGraw, Pemble and Neubert, the following people are listed by the museum as current board members: Stacey Gillis Weber (vice president), Ethan Klepetar (vice president), Stephen Bayne (treasurer), Lydia S. Rosner (secretary), Mike Addy, Douglas Crane, Howard J. Eberwein III, Ursula Ehret-Dichter, David Glodt, Wendy Gordon, William M. Hines Jr., Eric Korenman, Donna Krenicki, Suzanne Nash, Jeffrey Noble and Melissa Scarafoni.

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


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