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Berkshire Bumble: Director’s Letter Reveals Focus Groups Kept in the Dark About Planned Art Sales

In the sell-job for its New Vision, the Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA, has made much of the fact that “approximately 400 people have participated in the community consultation process” during the planning phase.

But a letter (text obtained by CultureGrrl and posted below), sent this week by director Van Shields to members of the museum’s community focus groups, reveals that most of them were given no heads-up that the museum was strongly considering a sell-off 40 works—the cream of its collection—to bankroll a multimedia re-do:

Berkshire Museum’s rendering of its Transformed Museum

In today’s Berkshire Eagle, the indefatigable Carrie Saldo reported that “some members of the community have told The Eagle they believed museum leadership implied that the 400 participants had endorsed the planned deaccession.”

Carrie Saldo of the Berkshire Eagle

It would have been reasonable to expect that those invited to represent the public in the planning process would have been informed, if not consulted, about the proposal to monetize a significant chunk of the public’s patrimony. But the museum’s outside communications consultant, Carol Bosco Baumann, told Saldo (and repeated to me this afternoon, in response to my queries) that “museums don’t necessarily consult with external parties on whether and what to deaccession. It is solely the Board’s responsibility to figure out how to attain financial sustainability, deaccessioning or otherwise.”

Maybe so, but Shields’ email blast to the focus-group members suggests that some of them, made to appear complicit in a controversial breach of museum ethics, may have felt blindsided.

Here’s the text of Shields’ letter, leaked to me by two separate sources. Its authenticity was confirmed to me today by Baumann:

Date : Tue, 15 Aug 2017 12:45:53 -0700

Subject : Thank you to our Focus Group members

Dear Berkshire Museum Focus Group members:

Thank you for helping us shape our New Vision for the future by participating in one of our focus groups during the ‘testing phase’ of our master planning process last year. As you may know, we also benefited from three standing advisory groups that met several times prior to our testing phase. They helped determine how the directions we were exploring would respond to community challenges and your thoughtful and considerate opinions helped us make the final selection.

I have no doubt that each of you are aware of the controversy surrounding our financial strategy that includes the sale of art from our collections, as well the fundraising campaign that we made public on July 12 in our New Vision announcement. Going into the Master Plan process, we believed that deaccessioning would likely be a tool in our kit to establish a sustainable future. We did not flag that for you, because we wanted your unfettered input to test our ideas and make our final selection [emphasis added].

Because the fact that the Museum had sold art of substantial value in 2008 was widely known [see the 3rd, 4th and 5h lots on this Sotheby’s list], the issue of deaccessioning did surface in a few of our focus groups. When that happened, our reply was we thought deaccessioning would be necessary but that was a matter that would be taken up by our Board of Trustees, as appropriate.

Here is what we have been saying to the public and news media about your role in the process:

· In our announcement event we characterized focus groups participants as representing local children in both public and private school systems, museum donors, members, and volunteers, young professionals, business leaders, innkeepers, and second homeowners, among others. Those segments encompassed the people we serve and included scientists, artists, historians, etc.

· Focus groups were designed to test the final two broad concepts for the Museum’s direction that ultimately helped the Museum select the scenario for its future.

· You were not asked to endorse our New Vision; rather, you played a role in helping us shape it.

· You were promised anonymity and we explained that we did not expect you to be ambassadors to champion our plans. (That said, thanks to those who have noted to friends and the public that you were part of the process.)

· We have noted to the media and others that we did not explain our financial strategy to you, as that was the purview of our Board of Trustees, who have fiduciary responsibility.

As you may have read in the media or on our website, we are approaching the end of Schematic Design phase of our project. We look forward to updating you and the community at large on our website and by other means over the next few months. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to let us answer any questions you have related to our process and plans. I am available to each of you in that regard, for a phone call or one-on-one meeting. My goal is to explain every aspect of our master planning process to anyone that wants to know so, again, please don’t hesitate.

Also, if you are so inclined to do so, please consider writing a letter to the editor noting your experience in participating as a member of one of our focus groups and thanks, again, to you who have already made your participation known to friends and the public.

We are thankful you have participated in our journey. Warm regards, Van

Van W. Shields

He ended the letter with a quote that he attributed to Socrates:

“The secret of change is to focus all your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

According to Quote Investigator, those words were uttered not by the Greek philosopher but by a fictional all-night gas station attendant, nicknamed Socrates, in a Dan Millman novel. (Where’s a good fact-checker when I really need one?)

I’ll leave the punchline to you.

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