Artist Stephen Hannock On Berkshire Museum

How Selling the Art Betrays the Community

By: - Jul 22, 2017

The arts community of the Berkshires has been shocked and angered by plans for the Berkshire Museum to sell works of art to raise $50 million toward a $60 million strategy to renovate the museum with a focus on presenting interactive displays of history and science. In violation of ethical guidelines in the field this fall it will auction 40 works including two masterpieces by Norman Rockwell which the artist gave to the museum.

We discussed this development with the renowned, Berkshire based artist, Stephen Hannock, who has shown at the museum and donated a painting to the collection.

This is a part of our ongoing coverage of a devastating decision by museum director, Van Shields, and the board of the museum.

Stephen Hannock I just got through talking for two hours to a puppet. He asked me some pretty tough questions about making paintings.

Charles Giuliano So there should be an easy transition from puppet to reporter.

 SH Or the Berkshire Museum director. Who is this guy? Nobody seems to know him. He's a phantom. (Van Shields)

I grew up with Bill Belichick and I remember when he was with the Cleveland Browns.  In the middle of the night they left for Baltimore. This smacks just like that.

CG This is still a fast developing story and very different from when I talked with you a couple of days ago. Initially, there was community euphoria and cheerleading in how it was reported in the Berkshire Eagle including a rave editorial.

The impact of getting out of the fine arts and selling 4O key works, including two Norman Rockwell paintings, is beginning to sink in. Today the paper had an above the fold piece on Laurie Norton Moffatt, the director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, as well as a longer than usual op-ed piece by her. Yesterday she told me that nobody will speak on the record to the Eagle reporter who interviewed her.

Breaking up the log jam by her taking a position will likely bring out other dissenting voices. I spoke at length a couple of days ago with a reporter for the Springfield Republican. It is likely that as momentum builds this breaks into a national story.

A lot of community and business leaders may be caught looking as the long term damage, moral and ethical issues kick in.

SH I read her excellent op-ed piece.

CG It's not clear but you may be directly involved in their yard sale.

The museum refuses to identify the other 38 works to be auctioned by Sotheby's. Information inching out from the museum and sources is that the lot will include impressionism, modernism and contemporary works. There is mention of Hudson River paintings by Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt. Concern focuses on the fate of the Calder mobiles which for decades have been a favorite with visitors.

Among contemporary works with significant value would be your donation and a large photograph by Gregory Crewdson. He has used Pittsfield locations for his staged images.

How long have you known this museum?

SH Since the mid 1970s when I was working with Leonard Baskin in Northampton. I believe I was in a show there in 1979 with a painting of mine that is now in the Bowdoin College Museum.  It was "Man of Peace, Child of the Nuclear Age." It was a self portrait with a Day-Glo aluminum face mask. I believe the sculptor Don Gummer was in that show. Right now we are both in an exhibition at Hancock Shaker Village. (He is the husband of Meryl Streep and a piece by the artist is sited at MASS MoCA opposite its entrance.)

CG Do you recall visiting the museum and in particular the impact of its Hudson River paintings?

SH Absolutely. It was a fun museum because they had everything. It had displays for schools and all sorts of stuff going on.

It reminded me a lot of the Albany Institute of  History and Art and the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, N.Y. Those are small museums in beat up towns. Beech-Nut left Canajoharie like GE did in Pittsfield and Sprague in MASS MoCA. Museums and their struggles became a significant part of the survival of those communities.

These neat little museums are plugging along. They're not dripping with cash but who is? There's cool stuff going on. I was recently in a show at Canajoharie, me, April Gornik and a couple of other artists. It was combined with works from their collection including an Edward Hopper. They have some great paintings. Albany Institute the same thing. I had a mini survey show a few years ago there. That museum had some real tough times but they're bouncing back.

The thing about the Berkshire Museum, they weren't just showing art, they were showing other work as well.

I remember running into Stuart Chase (formerr director of the museum) all over the Berkshires. Every time you went to an event he was there. He was engaging with the public on the front lines. As an artist you are only effective if you are living your life on the front lines. It is normal to expect the same from those who are running arts organizations. I find it ironic that I've never seen this guy (Shields) anywhere. I don't even know what his name is.

Now you are telling me that they are selling collections. If you hadn't called me I would never have heard about it.

With no exaggeration it's like the Cleveland Browns moving their football team in the middle of the night. They did that to avoid an irate population.

CG I used to say to Stuart "How do you feel about running this mongrel museum?" He would laugh and say "That's what I love about it." He was a man with many interests.

There was a special interest in contemporary art and he was doing a lot of projects. He was also interested in the Native American collections. Before the Berkshire Museum he was director of the Rockwell Museum in Corning, New York. They have material on the American West as well as Native American material. We often discussed our mutual interests and work with contemporary Native American artists.

SH In the cultural arena you can't do anything just for the money. Dumping the art for all those zeros sounds suspicious.

CG When you were working on the Newcastle commission Stuart and Leslie Ferrin convinced you to have a small exhibition of the studies.

SH I remember the show well and I gave a painting to Stuart for the museum. It was clearly leadership driven. Museums reflect their leadership. The museums I mentioned, as well as Berkshire Museum under Stuart, their leadership was charismatic and they got people involved. You've met this guy (Shields) and he's not Michael Conforti (former director of Clark Art Institute) or Joe Thompson (director of MASS MoCA). Perhaps that's not fair because those guys are giants in the arena.

You can't do this cloak and dagger stuff, dump a hundred years of history, then tell the neighbors you're doing them a favor.

CG As the volunteer firemen say in Maine "We're sorry your house burned down but we saved the cellar hole."

SH Hey, that's another museum. The Portland Museum. That place is beautiful. Portland is in the middle of a renaissance so it may be an unfair comparison but Pittsfield is bouncing back. It's nowhere as beat up as it once was. Same with North Adams.

I used to drive here when Mrs. Irene Hunter was backing me for twelve years when I got out of college. I drove over from Northampton to Williamstown in the late 1970s. Driving through North Adams in February, boy, that was a tough drive. Everything on Main Street was boarded up and Pittsfield is coming back too. Barrington Stage is great and now they have the Hotel on North. These are happening, top level developments. Now is not the time to gut a museum of its art.

CG An important part of that turnaround was Storefront Artists Project founded by Maggie Mailer. 

When it shut down after a decade in November, 2011 we posted her statement.

"Our starting mission was to fill empty storefronts and forge a community of artists, entrepreneurs, businesses, and residents. It's incredible to see all the positive changes in Pittsfield over the last ten years: theatre, galleries, restaurants, pop-up stores, coffee shops, artist run projects, and the list goes on .… A decade later, the board of Storefront Artist Project recognizes the time has come to say goodbye to this endeavor. We have achieved our purpose with flying colors. Downtown is thriving, and we are honored to have helped fill empty storefronts, put Pittsfield on the map, and become a model for the regeneration of other cities.”

At the time downtown real estate was dirt cheap. When he was renovating the museum I urged Stuart to purchase an industrial building as an eventual annex and storage facility. The museum has a tight footprint and typically the $20 million slated for renovation is all internal. When and if the museum grows there is no room for expansion. In that sense it is a typical, urban, downtown museum.

It's the same old story. Artists are the pioneers in derelict neighborhoods; Soho, Chelsea, Brooklyn, Williamsburg and then get pushed out by developers. GE cleanup money helped then the Colonial was renovated. Barrington Stage planted roots. For a time Ferrin had a North Street gallery now relocated to MASS MoCA.

The Berkshire Museum has been a beneficiary of this but now opts to cash out and move on. There was a lot of synergy that Chase was building on.

SH The piece I gave to the museum was in honor of Nancy Fitzpatrick and all the work she has done for the Berkshires. She and her daughter are dynamically contributing to the culture of the region. The painting was a study for my project "Northern City Renaissance." It was my celebration of a post industrial city. It was initiated when my mate Sting asked me to contribute something to his town. There was about to be a celebration of renewal after complete devastation when the ship yards and coal mines left.

They asked Sting to perform at the ribbon cutting of the performing arts center which is now a crown jewel of the U.K. Lord Norman Foster designed an amazing triple auditorium. He asked me if there was a painting there. My initial idea was to create a 90' painting and unfurl it down this waving, glass bubble. Of course Lord Foster was less than thrilled by the idea of this giant tarp being draped over the side of his building.

I ended up doing a painting with text and now three of them. One is at Time Warner another at the Laing Museum in Newcastle. The third is in London but I am not exactly sure where.

At the same time that the painting was being unveiled at the Laing Museum we had a small show at the Berkshire Museum. They were done simultaneously between Newcastle, England and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It worked and it was all Stuart. Leslie was involved and the energy on North Street really contributed to that. People making things is an exciting adventure.

I'll send you a link to a review of "Making" a show at Hancock Shaker Village where Jennifer Trainor Thompson is the new director. She spent 28 years as deputy director of MASS MoCA. She has decided to show major contemporary art. Beside my work she has Don Gummer, Maya Lin, Jenny Holzer, Gregory Crewdson, and David Teeple who does cubes of water. It's about contemporary art that thrives on its craft as a means of affecting the culture.  As did the Shakers. Their survival depended on their craft.

This is what was going on between Pittsfield celebrating the making and Newcastle half an ocean away. Now we have Sting coming to play at Tanglewood this summer. It's connected. You can't separate these things.

To sell a community on the bottom line, and not take into consideration the historic celebration of history that has been such a keen part of the Berkshire Museum from a hundred years ago, is really short sighted.

That's ripping off a community that can't pay attention to the day to day events. Everyone is trying to make a living and survive in  a tough town. It's come around but there's not a lot of gravy out there. I suspect that the board is unfairly being pressured to come up with an alternative and they can't.

First and foremost they need a new leader.

CG Shields and the board argue that this is necessary to secure the museum into the next century. There are examples of institutions, like Higgins Armory in Worcester, that just close their door.

(Founded in 1931 The museum closed at the end of 2013 due to a lack of funding. Its collection and endowment were transferred and integrated into the Worcester Art Museum.)

To save the museum from eventual shutdown, as Shields put it, the option was conforming to museum ethics or voting for the community. In the immediate area both The Mount and Shakespeare & Company faced insurmountable debt but without assets to liquidate. With strong leaders, active boards, restructuring of debt, budget cuts and aggressive fundraising they are both now stable and on track. They are moving forward with fiscal responsibility.

SH My point is that you gut the collection, spend the money, the programming still fails, and the director blows out of town. We're left with a shell to be converted to condos. The art is gone. This cycle has happened before. Selling the art doesn't work out.

CG This follows a familiar pattern that we have seen in education. Where there are cutbacks the first to go are music and arts programs. They don't attack math and science. The arts are never viewed as essential.

A  generation of students have been denied exposure to music and the arts. How does that impact generating audiences? Covering the arts in the Berkshires we rarely encounter young people. We don't go to the bars and clubs where they hang out.

Kids visiting the Berkshire Museum will be immersed in science but are deprived of looking at art. You don't need bells and whistles to learn to look at a print, drawing, painting or sculpture.

 My uncle Bill, visiting from New York, took my sister and I to the Museum of Fine Arts. We were just kids. When we got home my parents asked what I liked. The answer was Samurai outfits and mummies. After that I went many times on my own. My first job after college was interning in the Egyptian Department. There was a direct connection to that first exposure. Art has been a part of my daily life ever since. Art helps to learn how to look and see.

SH They can do both: The arts and the sciences.

It didn't work in Detroit where they wanted to sell the collection. (When the city declared bankruptcy, it had to put all of its assets on the table. Detroit's most valuable asset? The art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts. But Michigan's attorney general said it couldn't be sold because it's a public trust.)

When you gut the culture you gut the fun. That's exactly what's happening here. How did he sell the board and business community on selling the art? It was one of the coolest places in New England. It was so crazy, fish, dinosaurs, paintings, you name it. It's fun to go there the same way it is at MASS MoCA or the Clark. They're all different. You can't gut the art because you can't compete with MASS MoCA. That's silly. It's not about competition. It's a matter of having a cool spot. You can't do that without art.

CG With so much museum development and expansion in the Berkshires there is a sharp increase in cultural tourism and the fine arts. That will increase even more if  Tom Krens launches the train museum and another fine arts museum in North Adams. The train museum in Hamburg gets a million annual visitors. Much of this will kick in and have an impact over the next five to ten years. That will be a game changer for the Berkshires.

SH It's creepy Charles. Something is going on here and the pieces are being moved around. There's a truck bailing out in the middle of the night. Being on the board of museums is a tough gig. There's no easy solution. It's a hard job. Van has a hard job and has to be brought into the dialogue but this kind of extreme measure doesn't pay off. Culture is the prime business of the Berkshires. That includes the hospitality industry.

Tourism comes for these museums. Hancock Shaker Village is shifting gears and now they have a place at the table. For the past ten to twenty years they plodded along. There are wisecracks about what kind of a future is there for a community that does not believe in having sex. But you have a museum there which is now celebrating the act of making. The result is that they are breaking attendance records. It can be done.

CG I have covered them in the past and the conundrum is that it always has to relate to the Shakers. Taking the approach of seeing the Shakers as makers is a really smart idea as it allows for expanded resources. I would imagine there was lively board discussion about moving in this direction, How far can you move from the base?

If Trainor Thompson can shake up the Shakers then why not the Berkshire Museum? Given its collection of 40,000 objects to work with the possibilities seem endless. Expensive and complex interactive galleries become very static. You have to constantly maintain the technology. To keep up every year you need the new iPhone.

Even with a $40 million endowment you can't touch principle. At 5% that means a draw down of $2 million a year. Given the complicated infrastructure will that be enough? Then you need a staff to keep everything running and up to date. It doesn't cost much to maintain a gallery full of paintings.

SH We started a great project at MASS MoCA. In response to arts cutbacks in schools we have an annual invitational of student art. We give away cash awards to outstanding students. There are 600 people at the opening including many parents who have never visited the museum.

(The series was initiated for several years by Gail and Phil Sellers for the Eclipse Mill Gallery working with local art teachers.)

How about involving students and teachers with an art and science project at the Berkshire Museum or some other museum? How about doing something with a history class? Give cash prizes to schools that develop these projects. Why can't local museums be more active partners with our schools?

When you cut the music from the schools you cut the fun. Bring the music back, as they have with a vengeance in New York, it's magic. The kids just have a blast. Kids like coming to school. By cutting the art in that museum you take the fun out.

CG I would like to come back to the work you donated to the museum.

SH It was given in honor of Nancy Fitzpatrick.

CG Do you know the title and dimensions.

SH Not off hand. It's probably 32x20" would be my guess. It's paint on a digital print. It was a real working study for the series.

In my last NY show the featured piece was a 72" version of "The Northern City Renaissance." It's a celebration of the post industrial city.

(Major works by Hannock, like those of Gregory Crewson, sell for  six figures.)

CG So the work the museum owns is attractive for the museum to sell.

SH It's more attractive in the context of a show that kids can see and learn from.

CG They talk about natural sciences but what could be more relevant and exciting that integrating Hudson River paintings into displays of botany? The teaching point is how artists work with nature. What could be a more natural fit particularly for kids living in the Berkshires?

SH Did you see the Stone Hill exhibition at the Clark? I was a part of that. There was a root of a tree that I drew over time. They actually brought this tree in and there was discussion of the annual rings. They brought in a plow which was used to cultivate a hillside. There was an audio component. It was brilliant.

There are so many ways that museums can work with each other. These are the kinds of projects that get people in the door. That's what it means for museums to be good neighbors. Art has to be a part of it or you just loose out.