Unsolicited advice for the Berkshire Museum

The Berkshire Museum has now hired extra crisis-PR help. So here are a few ideas about what it should do next, on the messaging front. The tl;dr: try engaging your critics a little bit, and being much more honest about the realities you’re facing and the trade-offs you are making.

I’d love it, of course, if that meant you would talk to me, or to Lee Rosenbaum, or to representatives of the various major institutions which have come out firmly in opposition to your current path. After all, since I wrote about the museum’s deaccessioning plans a couple of weeks ago, a lot of public stances have been taken. Most importantly, the Association of Art Museum Curators has joined the the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors in opposing your plans: as far as I can tell, no national organization thinks that what you are doing is a good idea.

Instead, while you did did respond to the national associations, that response took the form of a short press release which basically said “yeah, we knew what they were going to say, but we’re right and they’re wrong”. Where the associations said “We stand ready to assist, in any way we are able, to find other solutions to the institution’s needs without resorting to the selling of works that can never be recovered,” your response was basically “shut up and go away, we’ve made our decision”.

Right now it’s pretty clear that you have made a strategic decision to notengage with your critics. As far as you are concerned, all debate happened in the past, in behind-closed-doors consultations with local stakeholders, and now all open questions have been answered, at least to your own satisfaction. The decision has been made, it’s the right decision, and you’re moving on, no matter how vehement the opposition.

Some people, of course, will never be persuaded. But even if they’re not persuaded, you’re likely to get much more sympathy if you ratchet up the openness and pull back on the disingenuousness. What’s more, there’s something unedifying about watching you send surrogates into the field to fight on your behalf, as we recently saw when Joseph Thompson, the director of Mass MoCA, wrote in to argue in favor of your decision. (Previously, of course, Laurie Norton Moffatt, the director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, had come out strongly against the deaccessioning.)

But first, let’s look at your initial press release announcing the deaccessioning, a seven-page document with the headline “Berkshire Museum Unveils $60 Million Reinvention Plan”. There’s nothing about the deaccessioning on page one (“we are so proud of this thrilling new vision for the Museum”), and when it finally appears on page two (“these initiatives will be largely funded through the sale of artworks in the Museum’s collection, which have been deemed no longer essential to the Museum’s new interdisciplinary programs”) there’s no indication that this was in any way a difficult decision to make, or that the museum will be sad to see these artworks go. On top of that, the entire 2000-word press release makes no mention at all of the donors who gave these artworks to the museum. Which is odd, given that it’s their donations which are ultimately making the whole program possible.

From the beginning, then, there was a disconnect between your relentlessly upbeat official messaging, on the one hand, and the reasons you gave to the press, on the other.

“For the past 10 years, the annual structural deficit, including depreciation, has averaged approximately $1,150,000, [director Van] Shields said…

“To survive, it is change, move, or die — we have to change,” Shields said.”

This is, clearly, the real reason for the deaccessioning – and it’s one which, again, does not appear in the press release. Your website does not have annual reports, so it’s hard to see what Shields is talking about, and the most recent publicly-available Form 990 is from 2015. Still, here’s what it shows:

In 2015, you had $4.3 million in revenue against $3.1 million in expenses, which looks very much like a surplus, not a deficit, of $1.2 million. That’s on top of a $460,000 surplus the prior year. And you ended 2015 with $18.4 million in net assets, which was $830,000 higher than where you ended 2014.

This doesn’t look like an existential crisis to me – but then again, it’s not always easy to see an existential crisis in a Form 990. The thing is, when you talk about a “structural deficit, including depreciation,” no one really knows what you’re talking about. Specifically, how does depreciation add to the deficit? If you bought some asset for a certain amount of money, and now that asset is worth less money, that’s fine, it’s not a deficit.

Weirdly, the most specific numbers, when it comes to your current financial predicament, are coming not from the museum itself. Rather, they’re coming from the director of a rival institution, in the form of Thompson’s op-ed:

The museum’s structural deficit — its annual shortfall — is well over $1 million per year, on a budget that is only $2.4 million. With rapidly diminishing reserve funds, the math is ineluctable, and the results are devastating: The institution is literally eating itself alive. We owe the current board and administration a debt of gratitude for shining a bright, public light on this alarming fact. That revelation was a brave and honest act of fiduciary responsibility.

I have absolutely no idea what “bright, public light” Thompson is referring to here, because I sure as hell can’t find anything on your press releases page which talks about your fiscal situation, nor can I see anything showing that the reserve funds are even going down rather than up, let alone “rapidly diminishing”.

Indeed, when the Berkshire Eagle – which supports your plans – asked you for profit and loss statements from the past two years, we’re told that “The Eagle was referred to online filings, which do not include those years.” That’s not a good look.

And supporters like Thompson are not exactly on the same page as whomever writes your press releases. His op-ed is full of “brutal reality” and “crushing socio-economic backdrop” and “facing up to stark economic realities,” which is something you seem to be much better at doing in private than in public. When your public statements are centered on statements about how “Pittsfield’s economy is on the rise,” it’s hard to square that with a narrative of existential crisis and gale-force demographic headwinds.

It’s not easy to take Thompson’s op-ed at face value, either. For one thing, he concedes that the Clark Art Institute, the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Williams College Museum of Art, and his own Mass MoCA have all managed to emerge in recent decades “as programmatic dynamos, active institutions with vibrant rosters of nationally significant exhibitions and massive public outreach.” That hardly bespeaks a broader climate which is naturally deleterious to museums.

Thompson then goes on to talk about a “Rockwell at Rockwell” strategy, which sounds great! Until you realize that at no point was the Rockwell Museum approached about such a plan: its director says that you never approached her to work together to identify another solution for the artwork.

Instead, all she can do is plead:

Shuffleton’s Barbershop is not, as has been stated, a redundant Rockwell, a footnote to the superb collection down the road at the Norman Rockwell Museum. It is, rather, a unique masterpiece and one of Rockwell’s very best paintings that he gifted to the Berkshire Museum and the people of Berkshire County for education and enjoyment.

At the very least, this surely deserves a response. Is it your position that this is wrong, that Shuffleton’s Barbershop is not a unique marsterpiece? Is it your contention that Rockwell did not gift it to the people of Berkshire County for their education and enjoyment? Indeed, what kind of responsibility do you owe to your donors, and can you be trusted to keep your promises?

This is not just about long-distant gifts by Rockwell, either. As recently as November 2008, you sold three works by Russian painter Boris Dmitrievich Grigoriev at auction, raising some $7 million. All of that money was earmarked for future art acquisitions, but what actually happened to it? I asked, and was told this:

Proceeds from the sale of the Russian paintings in 2008 were used to create the Keep Crane Fund; that has been used to acquire natural history specimens, Native American ethnographic materials, fine art photography, and a commission: three works by Berkshire-based artist Tom Patti, as well as to provide for direct care of the collection.

It’s pretty clear to me that very little of that $7 million has been spent on acquisitions, and that most of it has gone into what you’re euphemistically calling “direct care of the collection,” and what most other people would simply call operating expenses.

In other words, for all that your supporters are out there praising your transparency, everybody else, including all the journalists trying to write about this issue, are finding you maddeningly slippery and hard to pin down. The overwhelming impression is that you have something to hide, that you’re not telling the whole truth.

I mean, you can’t be telling the whole truth! There isn’t a museum director in the world who wouldn’t be sad to see a great work like Shuffleton’s Barbershop sold off forever. (Or, to put it another way, if Van Shields isn’tsad to see that piece go, he shouldn’t be in charge of such a storied institution, he should be out there trying to build some kind of digital whiz-bang multimedia experience from scratch.) For some reason, however, Shields seems to be incapable of expressing regret: He’s like some kind of Silicon Valley startup bro who has convinced himself that his messaging always has to be about how everything’s great and he’s crushing it. Well, that doesn’t work, in the museum world.

Mass MoCA’s Thompson, in his op-ed, talks glowingly about how a Hudson River School painting formerly owned by the New York Public Library now reaches many more people at the Crystal Bridges Museum. That’s more by luck than judgment: Crystal Bridges just happened to be the high bidder at the auction. But there’s no reason that museums can’t place their deaccessioned works carefully with other local or national institutions, instead of just shipping them off to Sotheby’s.

So maybe start there: Why didn’t you approach the Norman Rockwell Museum in an attempt to keep your Rockwells in the Berkshires, as their donor (Rockwell himself) clearly would have wanted? How did you decide that a Sotheby’s sale was the best way to deaccession these pieces, rather than an attempt to place them more carefully with public institutions? Did you even attempt to quantify how much of a dollar difference that would likely make?

And then maybe move on to the deeper question of when and how deaccessioning is OK. The standard answer is that it’s only OK if you’re using the proceeds for new acquisitions, but Thompson has a much broader conception:

Deaccessioning art… can invigorate and even save institutions, so long as the funds raised through deaccessioning are utilized for prudent permanent capital investments, which include strengthening the endowment, making core infrastructure improvements to support the preservation and presentation of remaining collections, and augmenting budgets for future acquisitions. Spending sales proceeds to cover today’s operating expenses, or yesterday’s bills, is not on that list.

This is unconvincing. After all, the purpose of an endowment is, at least in part, to cover today’s operating expenses; if you deaccession art and put the proceeds into an endowment, you’re basically taking something which used to be part of your cultural patrimony, and turning it into cash to be invested in securities and hedge funds and the like. You’re also intending to use some part of that cash pile every year to help cover your expenses. Why sell 40 paintings today, put all of the proceeds into a fund, and then use the fund to cover your expenses? Why not sell one painting, use the proceeds from that to cover your expenses, and then keep the rest where they belong? I’m sure there are answers to that question, but there isn’t an obvious bright line between the two.

In any case, it would be good to have the Berkshire Museum’s take on deaccessioning. How bad do things need to be, before you pull the emergency deaccessioning cord? Is deaccessioning OK even for successful institutions, if they say want to do something expensive with their architecture? Did you make this decision just because it would improve your program, or was it the only solution to an existential crisis? And if it’s the latter, why aren’t you being open about your financials?

Basically, it’s time for answers and openness. Your decision was presented to the public as something of a fait accompli. The least you can do is be willing to answer a few detailed questions about how you arrived at your conclusions.

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