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Peabody Essex Museum Directors Challenge Berkshire Museum Not To Destroy The Public's Trust

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield as seen in 2013. (Berkshire Museum/Wikimedia Commons)
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The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield as seen in 2013. (Berkshire Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, recently announced a plan to sell 40 of the most valuable and important works of art in its collection, including renowned paintings by Norman Rockwell and other major American artists. The museum’s board argues that unless they sell the most valuable and important part of its collection the museum will not be able to survive.

A closeup of Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop."
A closeup of Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop."

Though the director of the museum and at least one board member publicly stated in recent years that the Berkshire Museum was a "lean and efficient" operation, the museum has, by its own admission, run deficits of up to $1 million a year over the past 10 years on a $2 million a year operating budget. The museum has never launched a publicly announced fundraising campaign in an effort to satisfy its financial needs. Museum representatives have argued that Pittsfield is a poor community and the Berkshire Museum lacks the appeal that has enabled nearby nonprofits to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for their programs and facilities over the past decade. An anonymous donor recently offered the museum $1 million if it would take time to more carefully consider its options for the future apart from selling its art collection, the single part of the Berkshire Museum that makes it special. The museum rejected this offer. Instead, the board of trustees at the Berkshire Museum hopes to receive $60 million from an upcoming Sotheby’s sale of its extremely important art treasures in order to add to add $40 million to its endowment and to invest $20 million in facility improvements and new interactive history and science exhibits.

The museum’s plan has drawn fierce opposition from more than 1,000 local and regional residents. All of the nation’s leading museum professional associations, as well as the Massachusetts Cultural Council, have censured the Berkshire Museum for failure to uphold public trust and failure of the Berkshire Museum board to fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities. Writers at the LA Times, the New Yorker and other national publications have opposed the board’s plan to monetize the Berkshire Museum’s collection. The attorney general is carefully reviewing the plan which clearly has statewide and national implications for museums.

What is wrong with the trustees’ plan for the Berkshire Museum?

Museum collections cannot be considered as a slush fund that trustees and administrators can tap anytime a museum needs money.

Nonprofit museum collections are held in trust to benefit the public through exhibitions, publications, research and public programs. The public includes not only the people of Pittsfield. It includes citizens of the commonwealth and the American public at large.

Museum collections cannot be considered as a slush fund that trustees and administrators can tap anytime a museum needs money. That is why the Financial Accounting Standards Board, which sets national accounting standards and practices, classifies museum collections as non-fungible assets. It is also why museum professional standards prohibit monetization of collections to pay for operational expenses unrelated to collections.

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (Alan Solomon/AP)
The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (Alan Solomon/AP)

Museum collections in Massachusetts alone are worth billions of dollars. If museums were allowed to monetize their collections by selling art or other objects in their collections to pay for deficits, new exhibits, staff salaries or other expenses, then public trust in museums would be severely compromised and the financial underpinning of museums would be severely eroded. Why would individuals contribute works of art or other objects to museums for their collections if all a museum needed to do every time it needed some money was to sell objects from its collections? That is a model of untrustworthy practice and an assured way to undermine the financial base of American museums.

Trustees of a nonprofit museum are fiduciaries who are responsible for representing and acting in prudent ways to assure that museum collections, facilities and funds are used as intended to benefit the public. The Berkshire Museum’s board of trustees undoubtedly consists of capable and well-meaning people who clearly believe there is no way to save their museum apart from stripping it of 40 art treasures that are the most important part of its collections. These works of art were given to the Berkshire Museum by individuals who intended that they be presented and shared with the public on a permanent basis. The Board of the Berkshire Museum was entrusted with the responsibility to fulfill these donor intentions and to serve as responsible stewards of the art given to the museum to be forever accessible to the people of Pittsfield, the citizens of the Commonwealth and the American public at large.

Norman Rockwell did not give one of his most important paintings to the Berkshire Museum as a funding source to pay for interactive history and science exhibits and make up for deficit spending. None of the donors who gave art to the people of Pittsfield and beyond gave it with the intention that it could be converted to cash and used as a slush fund to meet the Berkshire Museum’s financial needs. They intended that the important and valuable art treasures they gave to the people of Pittsfield through the museum would remain accessible and beneficial to everyone in perpetuity.

We are confident there are other options the Berkshire Museum could successfully pursue to assure its survival without selling its art treasures. These options include the featuring of its exceptional collection of American art as a primary attraction and source of programming that would have sustained appeal and benefits for the community, state and nation. Many institutions and donors would be willing to help the Berkshire Museum pursue this or other options for survival. Few will be willing to assist an institution that has violated public trust, donor intentions and a responsibility to serve as prudent stewards of art and other resources given to benefit the public at large.

The Berkshire Museum Board has made a judgment that the Berkshire Museum cannot survive unless it sells the works of art that are its most important asset and legacy for the community of Pittsfield and beyond. In this case, what are the fiduciary and public trust responsibilities of the Board of Trustees?

A 2009 science exhibit at the Berkshire Museum. (Flickr)
A 2009 science exhibit at the Berkshire Museum. (Flickr)

The board argues that new interactive history and science exhibits will generate new community financial support that will enable the museum to survive. Interactive history and science exhibits are very expensive to create and maintain and they become dated very quickly. How many times will people want to see a fixed set of interactive exhibitions? Will these exhibits realistically be a greater draw over time than exceptional works of art by Norman Rockwell and many other major American artists?

A decade from now what will the legacy be of the Berkshire Museum Board of Trustees? They will have forever deprived their community and the nation of the opportunity to see and experience exceptional American art entrusted to them to benefit the public through exhibition and programs. Instead they will have substituted a set of interactive local science and history exhibitions that will likely be quickly outdated and require new installations and resources.

Also, by violating professional prohibitions against monetizing public museum collections to support general operations the Board of Trustees will assure that many potential individual donors, foundations, corporations and public funding agencies will never invest in the Berkshire Museum.

If the Berkshire Museum board is correct in their assessment that there is no way to keep the museum alive apart from selling the museum’s art treasures, they must take a different path. The responsible course for the Berkshire Museum Board of Trustees to take as fiduciaries charged with preserving and protecting the Berkshire Museum’s collections, reputation and resources on behalf of the American public is to transfer their collections and other resources to museums who can and will assure that the exceptional art entrusted to them remains accessible to the American people. The Berkshire Museum’s art treasures do not belong to the museum’s Board of Trustees. The trustees are stewards. These treasures belong to the American public.

The trustees are stewards. These treasures belong to the American public.

The board’s present plan of action represents a fundamental and egregious violation of public trust and fiduciary duty and responsibility.

If the planned sale of the Berkshire Museum’s art treasures proceeds as planned, the residents of Pittsfield, the commonwealth and the American people will be the losers. The bar for fiduciary responsibility in overseeing nonprofit organizations in Massachusetts will be set at an extremely low level and Massachusetts will have permitted the Berkshire Museum to encourage other museums nationwide to pursue the same tragic course. And the Board of Trustees of the Berkshire Museum will leave a legacy of broken trust that will negatively affect its community and the community of American museums.

The people of Pittsfield, the Berkshires, the commonwealth and the nation deserve better than this from the Berkshire Museum and its leadership.

Dan L. Monroe is the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum and former president of the American Alliance of Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors and the Western Museums Conference. Robert N. Shapiro is president of the Board of Trustees of the Peabody Essex Museum.

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