NORTH ADAMS – I enter the discussion about the Berkshire Museum with great sympathy as I continually struggle to pay for the annual deficit of my own Berkshire Art Museum in North Adams. Although I have a 100-year plan, there are everyday practicalities. Therefore, I can understand the Berkshire Museum’s attempt to reinvent and re-energize its museum for decades to come while trying to quickly resolve its monetary issues.
All museums struggle to pay their bills. It is also difficult to be a small museum, especially since it is next to gigantic world art attractions. Yet all artists and museum executives are appalled at the prospect of an assignment. Often times, not only does the divestiture not solve the basic problems, but I have seen terrible choices made about what to sell and what to keep.
A lot of questions
In the case of the Berkshire Museum, the 40 works of art for sale are not known, except for the mention of two canvases by Rockwell. As in government, secrecy invites suspicion. (The museum plans to release the names soon, which will generate even more reactions). The museum states that it developed this plan with input from the community, but it seems every museum and artist I know was completely surprised by their announcement.
Several questions arise:
* Should the museum practically abandon its art department and art mission? Should she focus only on her science and her natural collection?
* Are the Berkshire Museum exhibits / art collection a ‘non-entity’ compared to its neighboring large museums that specialize in art – Rockwell Museum, Clark Art and Mass MoCA to name just the three most big?
* Will renovating and relocating its exhibits bring a wider audience and future security to the museum?
* Have these works just gathered dust in recent years, and if so, is it due to poor exhibition decisions?
* Are there other ways to fundraise if it is determined that art should not be sold?
* What is the overall mission of the Berkshire Museum? What kind of museum is it really – or should it be?
I suspect his argument is that without a divestiture, the drop in attendance / income will put the museum on the path to bankruptcy sooner rather than later. Given such a choice, it is easy to see how the board of trustees, unable to bail out the museum by writing the checks themselves, accepted the idea.
There is a flip side – that museum art is valuable, donated for cultural and not monetary reasons, and that selling (a / k / a cession) is an act of treason. This has been the reaction in the art districts.
Plus, the optimistic plan still might not work. The museum can sell art, renovate its space, set up incredible “Disney” -type exhibits, and yet that could be a failure.
* Having completed a number of reallocation projects, I guess his renovation estimate of over $ 20 million is more than necessary. Sometimes being a fugitive brings better solutions than having an unlimited checkbook. Really, how can a chic lobby attract more visitors? I bet another design company could offer a better solution for just $ 5 million. Would that change the museum’s insistence on selling its art collection?
* I am convinced that the museum can find a role to include the arts which will always present a very different experience than other museums in the region.
* The museum can find partnerships. A while back I started the idea that maybe the museum could find more locations in Berkshire County (the best defense is a good offense) – so create a Southern County satellite and a northern county satellite. It does not have to be a single location museum. For example, he might partner with my Berkshire Art Museum in North Adams, or he might find a “MoCA-like space” in one of GE’s abandoned buildings. It worked for the Guggenheim, so why not for the Berkshire Museum?
Lack of big picture
There is a part of this debate that reflects a problem that I have observed for almost three decades. The county of North Berkshire is like a cultural theme park. Mass MoCA and the Clark are the greatest “roller coaster” rides, but there are many other attractions. The problem is, we lack a “fleet manager”. In any theme park, if people only go to the big “rides,” a park manager will boost traffic to other sites.
We need to invite museum / arts leaders and activists to broaden the discussion. We have to think outside the box and envision a future for our cultural county – say 40 years from now – and then work backwards to get there. The big ones have to pay more attention to the little ones. Think like Amazon and not like Sears.
Imagine the day when everyone who visits Berkshire County chooses a “week ticket” which gives the tourist access not only to the great museums, but to many other places as well. We will need different incentives, different types of passenger transport, and different tourist packages.
Thank the museum for trying to redefine itself. However, it’s pretty clear that he hasn’t found the best solution. Logically, the discussion should take place after the development of a plan.
Eric Rudd is an artist and founder of the Berkshire Art Museum in North Adams.