Eric Rudd: Berkshire Museum art sell-off no solution

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NORTH ADAMS — I enter the discussion about the Berkshire Museum with great sympathy as I continuously struggle to pay the annual deficit for my own Berkshire Art Museum in North Adams. While I have a 100-year plan, there are daily practicalities. Therefore, I can understand the Berkshire Museum's attempt to reinvent and re-energize its museum for future decades while at the same time attempting to quickly fix its monetary problems.

All museums struggle to pay bills. It's also tough to be a small museum, especially being next door to gigantic world-destination art attractions. Yet all artists and museum leaders are aghast at the prospect of deaccessioning. Often, not only does deaccessioning not solve the basic problems, I've seen terrible choices made of what to sell and what to keep.

Many questions

In the Berkshire Museum's case, the 40 works of art to be sold are not known, except for mention of two Rockwell canvases. As in government, secrecy invites suspicion. (The museum plans to release the names soon which will spur even more reaction). The museum states that it came up with this plan with community input, yet it seems that every museum and art person I know was completely surprised by their announcement.

Several questions are raised:

* Should the museum virtually abandon its art department and art mission? Should it concentrate only on its science and natural collection?

* Is the Berkshire Museum's art exhibitions/collection a "non-entity" compared to its larger museum neighbors who do specialize in art — Rockwell Museum, Clark Art and Mass MoCA to mention just the three largest?

* Will renovating and reinstalling its exhibits bring the museum a larger audience and future security?

* Have these works just collected dust in recent years, and if so, was that due to poor exhibition decisions?

* Are there other avenues to raise money if it is determined that art should not be sold?

* What is the overall mission of the Berkshire Museum? What kind of museum is it really — or should it be?

I suspect its argument is that without deaccessioning, faltering attendance/income will put the museum on a bankruptcy path sooner rather than later. Given such a choice, it's easy to see how the board of directors, unable to bail the museum out by writing the checks themselves, has gone along with the idea.

There is a flip-side — that the museum's art is valuable, given for cultural and not monetary reasons, and that selling (a/k/a deaccessioning) is a treasonous action. That has been the reaction in art quarters.

Additionally, the optimistic plan still might not work. The museum can sell the art, renovate its space, put in incredible "Disney-type" exhibitions, and still it could be a flop.

* Having done a number of repurposing projects, my guess is that its $20+ million remodel estimate is more than necessary. Sometimes being fugal brings about better solutions than having an unlimited checkbook. Really, how can a fancy lobby entice more visitors? I'll bet a different design firm could offer a better solution for only $5 million. Would that change the museum's insistence on selling its art collection?

* I'm confident that the museum can find a role to include the arts that will still present a much different experience than the other museums in the region.

* The museum can find partnerships. Some time ago, I pitched the idea that perhaps the museum can find more locations in Berkshire County (the best defense is a good offense) — so create a south-county satellite and a north-county satellite. It does not have to be a one-location museum. For example, it could partner with my Berkshire Art Museum in North Adams, or it might find a "MoCA-type space" in one of the abandoned G.E. buildings. It worked for the Guggenheim, so why not for the Berkshire Museum?

Big picture lacking

There is one part of this debate that reflects a problem that I've observed for almost three decades. Northern Berkshire County is like a cultural theme park. Mass MoCA and the Clark are the biggest "roller coaster" rides, but there are many other attractions. The problem is that we are absent a "park manager." In any theme park, if people only patronize the big "rides," a park manager stimulates traffic towards other venues.

We must invite museum/arts leaders and activists to expand the discussion. We must think outside the box and envision a future for our cultural county — say 40 years from now — and then work backwards to make that happen. The big guys need to pay better attention to the little guys. Let's think like Amazon and not like Sears.

Imagine the day when everyone who visits Berkshire County opts for a "one-week ticket" that gives the tourist access to not only the big museums, but also to many other venues. We'll need different enticements, different types of people transports, and different tourist packages.

Let's give credit to the museum for trying to redefine itself. However, it's pretty clear it has not found the best solution. Logically, discussion should come after a plan is put forth.

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


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