Alan Chartock | I, Publius: In the end, Berkshires will regret loss of museum treasures

Posted
GREAT BARRINGTON — Obviously, the Berkshire Museum is going for it.

Its leaders and board seem determined to sell valuable art that belongs to the museum and, more importantly, to the people of Berkshire County. They seem oblivious to the firestorm of frustration that this very bad and dangerous precedent-setting plan has engendered.

Professionals from all over the country have checked in and warned against this move. For their part, museum leaders have enlisted people to justify their actions. Letters to the papers that seem quite similar in nature are showing up regularly. There are reports that public relations people are actively proselytizing to make it happen.

Public figures whom I have always respected have signed on to the effort to sell the art. I have no idea what's behind that, but their efforts do seem misplaced considering the near unanimous testimony from the country's leading professionals on the matter.

On the other hand, never have I been prouder of this newspaper and the efforts of its investigative reporter, Larry Parnass, to shed light on the background of museum honcho Van Shields in his earlier post where he tried to do the same thing he is attempting to do here.

We know that Norman Rockwell wanted his neighbors in Berkshire County to have his paintings and, to that end, he gave them to the Berkshire Museum. Now the museum says that it wants to repurpose its mission and become a more science-oriented institution. I have no problem with that, although there is a huge distance between lip and cup.

I help run a major cultural institution and I have to tell you, I have a problem with squandering resources in order to pay ongoing expenses. To those who would say that WAMC prospers as all public radio stations do I would respond, "Guess again." Many stations have a hard time raising a small portion of what WAMC does and there is a lot of evidence that people support the station in record numbers because they need, use and value it.

In addition to all the other problems that the museum has faced, it has now become the subject of scorn from incredibly respected national magazines like the New Yorker. National arts organizations have also checked in, warning that the precedents set here will lead to similar actions destroying other institutions.

Look, I would hate to say "I told you so" after the fact, but nonprofits are supposed to go to their communities and raise money the old fashioned way. Right now, the game seems to be a bit of a pig in a poke.

Promises are being made that are not easily attained. I would be fired at WAMC if our bottom line kept decreasing. Frankly, I just don't know why we should believe that once the valuable art is sold there is a plan in place that will ensure stability for the museum. If it could be demonstrated that there is a need for the new model and that people would support it, I would be more inclined to understand things. Maybe someone knows something that I don't know. That is hardly likely because if it was the case, I think we'd probably have been told it by now.

Based on what I am seeing, my bet is that the wishes of Norman Rockwell and the Rockwell family will be ignored. The art will be sold. The letters, columns and testimony from across the nation will be ignored. Unfortunately, once the deed is done and when and if the plan doesn't work, Van Shields will be on to yet another post, or even retired, but the art will be gone. We will all be poorer for it and many will ask, "How could we have let that happen?"

Sometimes, bad things happen because people just won't stand in the way of a bad idea. It seems likely that is what is happening right now.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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