Eric Rudd: A compromise proposal to save art, and museum

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NORTH ADAMS — My late lawyer/aunt once told me that a good settlement is one in which both sides go away unhappy. Back in July, I wrote an op-ed maintaining that the Berkshire Museum's plans and vision are not good solutions. Since that time, the rhetoric has gotten stronger and both sides have dug in their heels.

A million dollar offer to pause the sale was refused. Well, how about $5 million? Is that enough to stop the sale?

There are several issues going on. The museum (director and board) is claiming it's in a financial crisis, but we've learned that it's not that immediate. It also wants to change the vision, and in doing so, essentially destroy the classical nature of the building and do away with a valuable auditorium. To finance these plans, it wants to sell the cream of its art collection. And either naively assuming there would be no protest or perhaps knowing that it was doing a bad thing (professional associations have condemned the museum's actions as unethical), it signed a deal with Sotheby's and shipped out the art work before the ink was dry, hoping to have a "done deal" before anyone could organize against it. If the museum had followed a proper process, its new vision presentation should have been the start of a community dialogue.

As the community and, in fact, as the entire country now knows, the museum made a huge miscalculation. Soon it's going to court again. No matter what decision is handed down, it's a lose-lose proposition. And the judge will decide on strictly legal grounds as to the authority of the board, and not whether the museum is wise or stupid in its purpose.

It's my continued opinion, joined by many others, that the financial crisis was exaggerated and that selling the best of the best is absolutely the wrong approach. A picture is worth a thousand words. As an artist for a half-century who has visited countless museums around the world, its obvious from viewing the few illustrations that the museum showed to the public that its new vision is an amateur/commercial attempt at best, and it is destroying a wonderful historic building to achieve a bad result.

Total disaster

Even the few museum professionals who have offered some sympathy about the museum's struggle to pay its bills seem to cringe at the prospect of replacing quality exhibitions with inter-active displays that will be out of fashion in no time. Finally, no increase in attendance will result from converting the valuable auditorium into a "hotel-like" lobby and putting the remaining art into decorative wall rectangles. In total, it's a disaster.

However, that's where we are and the realities are in place. Knowing that no museum can show all its work all of the time, I came up with a compromise solution.

Recently I met with the director of a major art museum (out-of-state) and tested my theory. Would his museum consider buying a 50 percent ownership of all 40 works of art worth $60 million at a bargain? They could share the work — annually, half-year, or by a variety of sliding schedules. It's not that different than having the art on tour, but this would offer a substantially better return.

I offered the idea that his museum could own $30 million of art for perhaps $5 million. Museums have limited budgets so they can't pay what private collectors might on individual works. Plus, as a package deal aimed to keep the work in the public view and half-time in the Berkshires, it deserves this discount. The idea got this director's attention.

That was my first attempt at just one museum but it was enough to tell me that this solution will work. It's not what I want to see happen, but why risk losing in court?

All the Berkshire Museum has to do is amend its contract with Sotheby's and offer a 50 percent ownership for the entire art package with a $5 million minimum. Who knows? Maybe the auction will bring more than that. At a minimum, $5 million should ease the financial pressure and give them enough money to get the museum back on track.

What would I do with the proceeds? Put $4 million into escrow, and use $1 million over ten years. Hire a wildly enthusiastic young curator at $40,000 a year ($400,000 covers 10 years) and spend $50,000 a year to do quality programs and exhibitions that will really bring in more visitors (in the galleries as well as in the auditorium which, with proper stewardship, could offer Saturday morning children's talks, weekly art and science talks, more films, performances, etc.).

What to do with the last $100,000? Look for fresh leadership — someone who knows how to present great shows and knows how to stimulate a caring and responsive community to support the museum once again.

Eric Rudd is an artist and founder of the Berkshire Art Museum in North Adams.

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