Berkshire Museum Top Arts Story of 2017

Coverage Morphed from Local to National News

By: - Dec 26, 2017

The day after Christmas there was an e mail from the embattled Berkshire Museum. As an end of the year funding request it was not unusual. The double take of this particular message was its change of direction for the museum.

Not that long ago museum director, Van Shields and board president, Elizabeth "Buzz" McGraw, assumed some $60 million as a slam dunk derived from the sale of 40 works of art from the semi-permanent collection. Compared to that lofty sum the current appeal is for chump change.

With last minute intervention the scheduled cycle of auctions at Sotheby’s was put on hold. An earlier decision by a Berkshire based judge to approve the sale of 40 works from the collection was appealed by Maura Healey the Attorney General of Massachusetts. The presiding appelate judge has extended a day in court to late January.

The decision can go either way. The funding message, that is quoted below,  indicates that the museum is seeking to win back a community that it ignored in pursuit of its New Vision. It states that “With your support, our educators introduce students and visitors to a world of discovery.

“This is our mission which we will continue to fulfill. When we learned that local teachers lack valuable planning time, we took action. Developing a program that sends a Museum educator into the schools to enrich their science and social studies classes, we now provide teachers the time they need for professional training and planning. This is in addition to our existing programs in more than eleven schools across the county. As cuts in public school funding increase demand for our educational partnerships, we pledge to work with you to meet this challenge.

“We need your support. As we work toward the Museum's future, your gift to our Annual Fund sustains vital ongoing programming - including more than 29,000 educational experiences offered to students each year.

“Please consider making a gift to the Museum's Annual Fund today.”

When and if the museum abandons gutting the collection, comes to its senses, and stops behaving as a pariah among museums, many will be glad to write a check.

Passion runs deep on both sides. This has been clear since the museum announced its plans last summer.

Before the ink was dry on a contract, with cheering by a Berkshire Eagle editorial, most of the works had already been delivered to the New York based  auction house.

Having previously covered rouge attempts to deaccession works by The Museum of Fine Arts and the Brockton Art Museum, to mention two examples, I again researched ethical guidelines. Based on statements, plans and elevations for drastic renovations, the Berkshire Museum's amateurish New Vision immediately  struck me as dead wrong.

We have lived in the Berkshires since 2001. Significantly, for the very first time, I submitted a Letter to the Editor of the Berkshire Eagle. It summarized the salient points of how the intended sale violated museum ethics.

Arguably, the letter was an embarrassment to the editorial staff that had not done its homework prior to endorsing the museum's plans. It failed to evaluate a radical and unethical attempt to abandon its mission as an eclectic museum that included 19th and 20th century  masterpieces. The two most valuable and beloved works were paintings by Berkshire resident the late Norman Rockwell.

Long before a museum was established focused on Rockwell's work the renowned illustrator personally donated these paintings to the people of the Berkshires. No artist, before or since, has better defined the heart and soul of the unique qualities of life in the Berkshires. Many regard selling these treasured works, and 38 others, as equivalent to removing the Eucharist from the tabernacle. Without its relics a church is just a building.

After several days of suspense I was informed that my letter, the first to question the sale, would run in the Sunday edition. It was posted on line on a Friday.

Emerging from a matinee at Williamstown Theatre Festival, that Saturday, I was dismayed by an e mail from an editor. The museum had succeeded in lobbying the Eagle. It informed me communication from the museum asserted that Van Shields was not a member of the Association of American Museum Directors and that the Berkshire Museum was not “an art museum.”


Since it was a weekend, with no time for fact checking, the letter was deleted from the website. Meeting with friends for dinner that night I was in a total funk. It appeared that Shields had blocked my letter and dodged the bullet.

The note from the editor, however, invited me to resubmit another draft. With some trepidation I carefully crafted the arguments. It exceeded the stated word count for a letter. I was surprised when, with very minor edits, it was published intact.

Immediately after that Laurie Norton Moffett, the founding director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, was interviewed by the Eagle about the artist and wrote a courageous op-ed piece. Her key point urged the museum to “pause the sale.”

The position she took was not without blowback.

While her strong, well reasoned, and gutsy position initiated debate the Berkshire Museum has powerful allies who support the sale. With numerous Berkshire arts organizations boards often tend to overlap. 

It was a shock, and deeply disappointing, when Joe Thompson, the director of MASS MoCA, wrote a scorching op-ed piece in support of “saving” the museum. During an early stage of coverage, before national media kicked in, his remarks represented a seemingly lethal blow to opponents of the sale. In the time since then there has been no modification of his position. In the months that followed many museum directors, curators, critics, and arts professionals have opposed the sale.

In the early phase of coverage the Eagle was playing catch-up. The paper’s long time art  critic, Charles Bonenti, was retired although he continued to write the occasional museum piece. The paper had fired its freelance art critic, Keith Shaw. Despite the prominence of major museums in the Berkshires coverage was and is a low priority for the Eagle. Fine arts features have been assigned to generalists and stringers. Artists are interviewed but their exhibitions are not reviewed. Imagine, for example, renowned Eagle music critic, Andy Pincus, interviewing Andris Nelsons and other conductors but not reviewing their performances.

In baseball parlance, for this major cultural development, the Eagle was caught looking.

Initially, general assignment reporters covered the developing and ever widening story. The editorial and news staff were finding their way into a daunting and complex story. It took time and momentum for The Eagle to get its bearings. It is likely that editors didn't know how to spell deaccession let alone define it. For that first editorial they did little more than rewrite the museum's press release.

A powerful tail wind developed when the story broke in national and eventually global media. The focus shifted from a tempest in a teapot, entailing a small regional museum, to a pervasive threat to the integrity of collections of all museums, great and small.

The question emerged, what happens when museum boards view collections as potential liquid assets for bricks and mortar, paying debt, and enhancing endowments? If courts allow sales that violate ethics of the field would there be a stampede?

Today’s email appeal for funding is surprising when compared to prior statements as reported in the Eagle.

This is not the first time that Berkshire Museum trustees have attempted to course correct financially, said Elizabeth “Buzz” Mc-Graw, the trustees president who joined the group in 2008.

“ ‘There were Band-Aids,” she said, and among those was its 2006 fundraising campaign.

“ ‘There was a belief that someone would die and leave us $10 million,'  she said.

“McGraw and Shields said the museum will continue to seek donations, but it will no longer ask donors to 'plug the hole in the bucket.'

“ ‘They want to support an institution that is fiscally responsible and that has a good business plan,' Shields said. 'Now we are saying when we come to you and ask you for money, it is going to make magic happen.”

Reporting went on to state that  “Last month, the museum turned down a $1 million offer by an anonymous group seeking to delay the controversial deaccession so experts could offer a second opinion. The Eagle also reported last week that at least two other groups floated proposals to the museum; one was rejected and the other was apparently ignored.”

As coverage gained traction there was  a staff change. While Carrie Saldo provided the early coverage there was a transition to Larry Parnass. The cash strapped Eagle committed resources to the story.

Parnass was dispatched to investigate alarmingly similar and controversial efforts in the position Shields was fired from shortly before being hired. He replaced the popular Stuart Chase as director of the Berkshire Museum. Parnass filed a long, detailed, and revealing report of which we offer a small excerpt. Although the facts questioned the character and integrity of Shields the continued support of McGraw and the board has been unwavering.

As Parnass reported.  “
Twice in his museum career, Van W. Shields has seen a $60 million solution. 

“The latest, to ‘reboot’ the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, faces turbulence over its central strategy: the sale of 40 works from its collection. The other time Shields pushed a $60 million plan to transform a regional museum, it hit more than rough air. 

“Shields’ dream of creating a new kind of museum in York County, South Carolina, crashed amid allegations of bad management, inadequate fundraising, institutional secrecy, loose spending, and an initial disregard for the archaeological legacy of the Catawba Indian Nation.

“That assessment is refuted by some of the community volunteers in Rock Hill, S.C., who worked for years with Shields, then director and CEO of the publicly owned Culture & Heritage Museums, to swap a modest regional museum heavy on African taxidermy for what promotional materials billed as 'the nation’s first museum of ‘people and place.’

“It was to rise in nearby Fort Mill along the wide Catawba River and would open, promotional materials promised, ‘to great fanfare,’ bringing tens of thousands of new visitors each year to York County. 

“But Shields and his museum allies failed to win the community acceptance and donations the ambitious effort needed, an investigation by The Eagle found. 

“They missed project deadlines, churned through staff even as the museum expanded its upper ranks, fumbled politics in a conservative county, and resisted public and private calls to be more open about the project’s challenges.

“Before it was over, both the South Carolina secretary of state’s office and the state’s attorney general conducted inquiries into public questions about the proposed museum’s finances. The secretary of state’s investigation found 'issues that were of concern.'

“Shannon A. Wiley, deputy general counsel for the secretary of state, detailed two main issues in a Feb. 23, 2012, letter referring the matter to the attorney general’s office. The Eagle obtained a copy through a public records request.

“The investigation by Wiley’s office focused on fundraising efforts for a project that was never built and on possible conflicts of interest:

“— ‘It does not appear that much effort was made to actually begin the museum project for which the land was donated — a lot of money was spent but it appears that there is nothing to show for it,' Wiley wrote. 'Also, it appears that hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent annually on professional fundraisers and public relations firms with little return on investment.’

“— ‘There may be conflict of interest concerns involving members of the Foundation’s Board of Directors and other individuals associated with the partnership with [Cherokee Investment Partners],’ Wiley wrote. ‘The same individuals seem to be involved with multiple corporations that are receiving large amounts of money.’

“Though the secretary of state’s office forwarded findings to the attorney general as possible violations of the Nonprofit Corporation Act, no criminal charges resulted. The attorney general’s office said in September 2012 that it was ‘closing the file without taking formal action at this time…’ ” 

Does this sound familiar? In South Carolina Shields spent millions and left the museum with debt and nothing to show for it.

There has been a similar pattern in the Berkshires of squandering resources while gambling on a huge payday through sales at Sotheby’s. The approach of  Shields and McGraw appears to be that you have to spend money to make money. That entails staggering legal fees, particularly as the case drags on through appeals. Then there has been expensive marketing and pr spin. Today’s slick funding appeal is a result of that farmed out consulting.

The attempt to deaccession is motivated by the meager endowment of some $7.5 million. Other than anticipated sales of art, until today’s email, there has been no significant fundraising effort. There have been a number of articles evaluating the alleged financial crisis of the museum and plausible alternative strategies for survival and growth.

There is no way of knowing how much of the endowment is being squandered through legal fees, marketing and pr. If the museum prevails that’s a moot point. Should the museum loose the appeal, its fiscal position will be ever more dire as was the case for Shields in South Carolina. Perhaps the board has been passing the hat to keep up with mounting debt.

What has emerged from this mess is that many in the community care deeply about our embattled museum.

Gallerist Leslie Ferrin, artist and curator, Peter Dudek, and many others have organized protests, websites, letters to the editor, and appeals to the community. This effort demonstrates that the museum and its historical mandate are worth fighting for. That includes numerous contemporary artists who have shown at the museum and have work in the permanent collection. Other than Eric Rudd's small, and underfunded Berkshire Artists Museum in North Adams, no museum has a commitment to the artists of the region except Norman Rockwell. Even vast MASS MoCA lacks a single gallery dedicated to supporting regional artists.

Back in September, we attended the opening of a retrospective of the artist Morgan Bulkeley at the Berkshire Museum. It felt strange and creepy to be there in support of an artist friend. There was a huge turnout including many Boston artists I have known and written about for decades.

With decorum and diplomacy I introduced myself to Van Shields. We had met but in the past few years he declined several requests for an interview. Face-to-face he appeared flustered.

Walking away, I was surprised when he caught up and tapped me on the shoulder. He blurted that I should report on the true story. It was a reference to our extensive coverage.

In response, I stated that I would be glad to meet with him. Not just me, since summer, Shields has stonewalled reporters as was documented by the New Yorker. While negotiating for an interview the reporter stated that behind his back the museum's hired flack tried to get his editors to kill the story. Based on my own experience that came as no surprise.

I informed Shields that, with an open mind, I was willing to hear and report on his side of the story.

“What’s the point of that” he asked in a gonzo exchange “You’ve already made up your mind.”

Not long after that opening it was announced that Shields would take an unlimited medical leave. It remains to be seen when and if he returns.

(On December 27, 2017 the Eagle reported that Shields has returned part time to the museum following two months of recuperating from cardiac surgery.)

One way or the other we will soon know the fate of the museum.

Significantly, the controversy is showing up as the most important fine arts story of 2017 on major media lists. By running point on this I predict that the Berkshire Eagle will be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Much to the credit of its editors and reporters the Eagle turned full circle on its original position. That included a face saving editorial which reversed its original endorsement of the sale.

No matter what the ultimate outcome it will take more than expensive lawyers and pr consultants to glue Humpy Dumpty together again. On both sides there is a lot of passion, energy and potential support waiting for the museum to tap into. To ignore that the museum faces a lose/ lose situation.

Last summer who knew it would come to this?