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BlogBack: Timothy Cahill, Regional Art Writer, on Berkshire Museum’s Decline (& how it should regroup)

Timothy Cahill, a veteran journalist and critic focused on the Berkshire art scene, responds to CultureGrrl Video: My Opinionated Tour of the Embattled Berkshire Museum:

I watched the video of the your visit to the Berkshire Museum with mixed feelings. I’m glad you made it up here and grateful you keep training your light on what’s happening with the misguided sale. But it sure is sad to see through the eyes of a visitor just how diminished the museum has become.

The young mom you spoke to at the beginning is right: The exhibits, especially on the first floor, definitely need refreshing. The configuration you saw in Berkshire Backyard is only about 15 years old, but has not worn well. Not to mention how unkempt the whole place feels.

The real pity though, as you surmised, is the upstairs galleries. The entire upstairs was once given over to art and antiquities. The Chinese and Japanese screens and vessels now at Sotheby’s [my link, not his], a mummy and some Egyptian artifacts, and the Winged Victory and other plaster casts all occupied the gallery that now looks like a warehouse.

“Pahat,” a mummy from the Ptolemaic Period, Egypt
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Cuneiform Tablets, 1st-4th centuries A.D., Iraq
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Where the paintings are now and in what is now the Curiosity Incubator were two large open galleries where the bulk of the works now for sale were displayed. The experience of walking through the space then was splendid—one delight after the other. The works hanging now are mostly things that rarely made it out of basement storage then—second- and third-rate pictures and “school-of” stuff.

There was also a small gallery that held a fine collection of American Cubism and contemporary works. Ironically, the best of what didn’t go to auction is not on display [emphasis added].

Where Morgan Bulkeley‘s retrospective is now hung was given over to temporary exhibits. In the 1980s, the last time the museum had an art curator, these shows were typically group or solo shows of regional artists.

Cahill called to my attention to his Op-Ed piece in the Berkshire Eagle on Friday, in which he blasted the museum for its “dereliction of duty” and suggested an alternative solution for enhancing its public appeal—reinstalling and reinterpreting its objects, “not as an outmoded ‘cabinet of curiosity,’ but as a regional collection.” Doing so, he said, “would attract tourists, appeal to donors and put Pittsfield back on the map” and “would save the museum from failing its highest calling, as the keeper of Berkshire cultural memory.”

Another Eagle article revealed that two former board members were missing from the museum’s annual trustees meeting, which I happened to stumble upon at the end of my visit on Sept. 25 (as shown in my video). One ex-board member cited the planned art sale as her reason for resigning, according to the Amanda Drane‘s report in the Eagle

But perhaps the biggest recent blow to the Berkshire Museum’s reputation and finances came from the Mass Cultural Council, the state arts agency, which issued this statement denouncing the sales as a “violation of the museum’s public trust.”

In its strongly worded rebuke, the MCC said that its “own review of the museum’s audited financial statements, show clearly that the museum could put itself in a healthy operating position without deaccessioning art….We urge the Museum’s Board of Trustees to reverse its decision to sell these artworks and explore alternatives to stabilize its finances and generate community support for its new vision. These alternatives exist, and we are prepared to help the Museum and its Board explore them and realize another path forward.”

In response to my query, Gregory Liakos, the Mass Council’s communications director, added this:

Right now, we are holding the museum’s fiscal year 2018 operating support grant, pending the results of the Attorney General’s review [my link, not his] and our determination whether the Museum continues to meet that program’s guidelines. The grant amount (pending override of the Governor’s veto of our budget) would be $22,100 [a drop in the bucket, but another hit to the museum’s ruptured reputation]….

We have offered professional technical assistance if the museum board of trustees are truly open to alternatives to the deaccessioning. We have extensive experience helping nonprofit cultural institutions under financial stress find sustainable business models and achieve success. These include Shakespeare & Co., The Mount [which I wrote about here and here], Fuller Craft Museum, and Worcester Center for Crafts—all examples of institutions that turned themselves around without changing their mission or selling core assets.

Contacted by me today, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office told me: “Our review is ongoing.”

Here again is my video tour that Cahill referred to in his BlogBack. (You can also view My Visit to the Berkshire Museum on YouTube.)

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