Where does the Berkshire Museum go from here?

After the dust settles following its controversial decision to sell off prize works, the museum faces difficult choices

by Brian Allen  |  29.08.2017
Where does the Berkshire Museum go from here?
The Berkshire Museum's audience visits for a fine aquarium, a remarkably dashing mummy named Prahat, fur snow suits belonging to North Pole explorers, an impressive meteorite, and shows such as its current survey of the history of the guitar
The charming, quiet Berkshire Museum is suddenly tempest tossed. Following its announcement of a new mission, a jamboree of pious finger-wagging ensued. National arts organisations clamour in protest, but their buildings are in good shape. They don’t have to worry from month to month whether staff salaries get paid. Yes, the Berkshire Museum endured long periods of bad management, but Pittsfield’s economy tanked when its core industries left. With them exited much of the museum’s donor base. Its financial model was never a good one: it relied on a few old Pittsfield families and the wealth generated by its General Electric factories. The city’s poor; the museum competes for local money with dozens of other arts and culture not-for-profits, and also hospitals, schools and churches. Berkshire County is both America’s premier cultural resort and Appalachia.

Clearly, the trustees are free to change the Berkshire Museum’s mission. If it wants to be a science museum or a children’s museum, fine. Few in the Berkshires think of it as an art museum anyway. Its audience visits for a fine aquarium, a remarkably dashing mummy named Prahat, fur snow suits belonging to North Pole explorers, an impressive meteorite, and shows such as its current survey of the history of the guitar.

It’s fair to say that most of the Pittsfield community sees the changes as good ones. Some think they’re horrible but most think about what their families will use and enjoy. They see the art as so many gold bricks locked in a vault.

Still, the museum is a not-for-profit built through a century of philanthropy to serve the public, so the public is entitled to answers to key questions. Even in the staid museum world, Watergate’s Deep Throat offers wise advice: “follow the money”.

How much are the trustees personally pledging to finance the museum’s new strategy? I think everyone would agree that selling capital is a last resort. It comes long after dedicated trustees have given what is reasonable for people who, at the end of the day, run the place and should be its biggest boosters and funders. Why should anyone write a check if trustees liquidate capital as a substitute for their own giving?

What will Sotheby’s earn through the sale of the museum’s art? Let’s say the museum sells $30m of art at auction. The standard buyer’s fee is 20%, or $6m, paid to the auction house on top of the hammer price. The standard seller’s fee is 10%, or $3m. This is big money. The museum is its client, to be sure, but not its friend—its goal is getting the consignment. It has much incentive to lavish the new mission with praise. Board members need to realise this.

Who are the museum’s consultants? How much is the museum paying them? Are their fees for the feasibility phase separate from future fees pegged to the cost of implementing the plan? The trustees are caring and conscientious people. All want Pittsfield to thrive. Consultants often beget more consultancy, though. They need to make a living, after all. It’s important to know their credentials and track records, too.

The board has promised money from the sale of art will first fund an endowment big enough to support its transformed mission. Will this happen? Of course it won’t. Everyone will get giddy and most of the money will get spent. If we’re lucky, the board will address all the museum’s infrastructure needs, though these needs, inasmuch as they often involve mechanics we can’t see, are the least sexy parts of a new mission. More likely, the razzle dazzle will get pride of place, estimates of paying audience will be inflated, and future operating costs will be underestimated.

This isn’t guile; it’s irrational exuberance. An education and exhibition programme as tech reliant as the plan envisages has to look new and improved, and we can’t know what the latest bells and whistles will cost. A meteorite just needs an occasional dusting. A mummy doesn’t even need a new tube of lipstick.

Venerable institutions tend to develop their own DNA. As if guided by the gods, they’ll repeat old patterns of operation, for better or for worse. This is a powerful impulse, and at the core of the Berkshire Museum’s historic DNA is impoverishment. But it’s only an impulse. Let’s hope a full airing of these questions will help put the museum on solid footing and keep it there.

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