NEW LONDON, Connecticut. – When their teacher pulled out the playing cards, it was time for the Connecticut College Introductory Museum Studies class to take sides.
Ege Sakirt, a junior, looked at Professor Christopher B. Steiner and drew a black card.
That color put him and a dozen classmates on the side of the Berkshire Museum – and on a collision course with those who ended up with red cards: enemies of the Pittsfield institution’s plan to sell 40 works of art. art ceded.
With the museum on the verge of withdrawing $ 60 million or more from its collection, the payoff for students of museum practice – here and across the country – is the problem itself.
“It was a gold mine for museum studies – and it’s happening right now,” said Sakirt, who lives in Amherst, Mass.
After weeks of study that included field trips to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge and the Berkshire Museum, the two debate teams argued verbally on Thursday in front of an audience in the school’s one-story Shain Library. below a collection of Asian art.
In two decades of teaching, Steiner says he’s never had such a problem that cession – the method by which museums remove items from a collection – weighs so deeply on his agenda.
“It’s really a story that unfolds and continues,” Steiner told the debate teams, after their members fed on pizza and cupcakes and went through their arguments one last time. “It worked amazingly for this class.”
And not his alone.
At Harvard Extension School in Boston, where students can earn certificates in museum studies, Jennifer Lawrence spent the past weekend researching an article about the Berkshire Museum’s plan to auction works. This business is now suspended for at least another week by court order, amid an investigation by the attorney general’s office.
“To be honest, I could go either way,” Lawrence told The Eagle.
But she was planning to back the museum’s decision to auction works, including the jewel in its collection, Norman Rockwell’s painting “Shuffleton’s Barbershop”.
Lawrence’s instructor Katherine Burton Jones said she was well aware of the matter now in several Massachusetts courts.
“It’s an important question, I can tell you, and it’s created a lot of debate on both sides,” Jones said.
Let’s not go around the barbershop.
The museum side won the Connecticut College debate.
Sakirt and his classmates put their 10-minute opening to good use, two judges decided. Based on their research into the case, including documents provided by Elizabeth McGraw, chairperson of the museum’s board, they argued that the facility was in danger of shutting down, her financial situation was dire and that she needed to find a means of surviving to serve its audience, particularly weak. – income children in Pittsfield.
Selling art, the team said, is the only way to ensure the museum’s long-term existence. And serving its audience, they said, requires a change, including a shift in focus towards science and nature.
“The reality is that the Berkshire Museum is at its end of the line,” said student Emma Walsh. As she spoke, a slide displayed on the room’s “viewing wall” showed a column of red ink.
“The community needs the Berkshire Museum to stay open,” said team member Elyse King-Guffey. “We have to give up those 40 pieces.”
By drawing black cards, members of the pro-cession team knew they faced a heavy burden, in a class devoted to absorbing the accepted rules of museum practice.
As a printed program that Steiner prepared for the debate clearly shows, museum organizations denounce cases in which the proceeds of the divestiture are used for operations or renovations.
As a perceived outsider, the pro-cession side has deepened.
A member, Kezia Rogers, later said that the difficulty in finding arguments “made our arguments stronger.”
Another member, Ali Harris, later said she believed citing the needs of poor children was helping her give her team an edge. The appeal of this argument, she hoped, would counterbalance the ethical constraint of using the proceeds of the divestiture for operations.
“I think it’s huge,” said Harris.
“The education of children is more important than specific works of art,” her teammate Kenta Bloom said during the debate.
Another factor may have come into play in the format of the debate, in which participants only needed to persuade two judges.
On both sides represented, the museum has a precise plan, noted student Jake Pescatore, a member of the winning team. He and his classmates were able to pursue the merits of taking specific action (selling) to overcome a specific problem (financial shortcomings).
“I think it really helped,” Pescatore said.
The judges felt that the initial arguments for the revocation were more convincing and they were not alone.
“The ‘pro’ team had a much better opening – and that set the tone,” said Steiner, the professor.
No better in the long run
The arguments made last week against the surrender will also sound familiar to those following this issue.
Students accused the museum of exaggerating its deficit, doing too little conventional fundraising, and risking being ostracized in the museum world and discouraging future art donations.
“Money is more important to the museum than the value of artwork,” said student Sarah Stephen. “It looks like the museum is not really in a financial crisis.”
Stephen’s team opened up for sellers, staking the position.
“It is neither ethical nor practical for the museum’s long-term vision,” said Maddy Bank, a member of the team.
“Public confidence is betrayed,” added Loulou Broderick.
Others pointed out that although the museum had polled public opinion through focus groups, it had not revealed at the time that art sales would fund the change.
And they blamed the museum for ignoring what team members believed was Rockwell’s wish to keep his work visible in the Berkshires.
The format of the debate gave the teams a few minutes to regroup between the segments. They came back with rebuttals and then, after a five-minute break, with summaries.
The pro-de-membership team drew a new argument from this week’s news. Changes in the U.S. tax system, a student said in the summary, could make it even more difficult for nonprofits if fewer taxpayers itemize charitable deductions.
To wrap it up, the team called up a slide showing a review of the museum’s social media.
“Shabby and sad,” he said of the place – a sight the museum would probably want to debate on its own.
The anti-opt-out team, perhaps feeling the spur of children’s awareness, argued that the museum is not a school.
But his “no” remained somewhat unclear.
“We just think there is a better way to save the museum and save the paintings,” student Jenny Carroll said.
“They shouldn’t give up what they have,” said teammate Ben Ynocencio.
Serenity Chen added, “The museum only focuses on the present – not the future.”
The debate judges called their decision a close appeal. The two judges were Sam Quigley, director of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Connecticut, and Vivian F. Zoe, director of the Slater Memorial Museum in Norwich, Connecticut.
Both had put aside their personal opinions on the matter.
“My heart is really to conserve the artwork and protect it for the community,” Zoe told the students, after Quigley announced the winning team.
Less “abstract” now
Even if he didn’t have to discuss the Berkshire Museum, Steiner’s classroom plan still covers the surrender.
“It’s still very abstract,” he said of the issue.
Until this fall, that is.
Steiner says he jumped at the opportunity to participate in a campus-based “career-focused learning” project that connected students with real-life issues.
“I’ve never been able to teach it where it’s so direct and so alive,” Steiner said. “In this case, we don’t know the outcome. It’s this thriller where they sit on the edge of their seats.”
Larry Parnass can be reached at [email protected], @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.