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The Berkshire Museum is an outlier in a changing and thriving arts economy

  • In this July 12, 2017, file photo, a pedestrian walks past the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. Ben Garver/The Berkshire Eagle via AP, File



For the Gazette
Friday, May 04, 2018

BOSTON — While Massachusetts cultural institutions are for the most part thriving, the struggles of outliers like the Berkshire Museum have initiated conversations about the right approach to preserving fixtures of the arts economy.

The fiscal chasm between different regional institutions — like the Pittsfield facility and the Fitchburg Art Museum — and an internationally renowned brand, like the Museum of Fine Arts, is vast and well-known. And it’s not likely to get better soon.

“As we’ve had this kind of cultural explosion in the Berkshires, and lots of new 501(c)(3)s and nonprofit organizations have popped up, the number of people able to write checks that support organizations like that are getting spread thinner and thinner,” Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of the 1Berkshire economic development organization, said in a phone interview.

“On top of that, the population has declined a little bit.”

Essentially, areas like the Berkshires, which have smaller, regional museums and may not attract international visitors also may not attract consistent donors.

In the United States, museums contributed 0.3 percent to the gross domestic product, or approximately $50 billion in 2016, according to the most recent data. In Massachusetts, over $2.2 billion is generated annually by nonprofit cultural organizations, according to the Massachusetts Cultural Council in its fiscal 19 budget proposal.

Nevertheless, challenges remain for organizations like the Berkshire Museum, which is seeking to raise up to $55 million through its controversial art sale to bolster its endowment, while at the same time executing a new strategic plan, according to museum spokeswoman Carol Bosco Bauman.

Following the sale of the Norman Rockwell piece Shuffleton’s Barbershop, the museum may be able to lower its endowment goal of $40 million without selling the remaining 39 works.

“Our priority has always been to protect what we consider our most important asset: our open doors,” Bauman said in an email statement. “We aim to provide our community, young and old, with compelling experiences in art, science and history. Yes, art — because art will remain a vital part of our museum and our collection.”

The divisive sale has triggered many conversations around collection preservation, said Leslie Ferrin, director of Ferrin Contemporary, and liaison between potential donors and cultural institutions.

“Everyone is going to discuss all of these things in a much more educated way because there are no laws, so they’ll create contracts between one another,” Ferrin said.

The Fitchburg Art Museum, a North Central Massachusetts equivalent to the Berkshire Museum, provides a different case study of what can happen when taking an alternative approach to keeping the lights on. When faced with its own financial travails, Fitchburg looked to the community, rather than its collection, as an asset.

The museum, whose total annual operating budget does not exceed $1.2 million, focused on how to best serve its diverse and vibrant region, according to director Nick Capasso. That meant subsidizing transportation costs for public school field trips, as well as a transformation to becoming completely bilingual, down to the external signage.

“If we’re here to serve the community, we’re here to serve everyone in the community,” Capasso said in a phone interview.

As a result, Fitchburg has accumulated an endowment of over $19 million, and has collaborated on the construction of approximately 60 housing units for artists, directly across from the museum. The units are slated to be filled by 2021.

Capasso acknowledged that what happened to the Berkshire Museum is what happens to smaller institutions that do not have endowments that can adequately sustain them over time.

“We will not, and have not, deaccessioned any art work to support anything other than the collection, and we’re not going to deviate from that,” Capasso said. “Their behavior is indicative of what happens to cultural institutions in communities where the money has drained out. It’s a desperation move, and it caused them to do something that’s not looked kindly upon by the museum community.”

That view was shared by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the state agency that supports arts, education and culture. Spokesman Greg Liakos said that the primary issue with the Berkshire Museum’s deaccessioning stems from treating public entities as private assets.

“The collections at that point don’t become assets being preserved for public good but become economic assets for a private institution’s own financial gain, and we certainly don’t want that,” he said in a phone interview.

Liakos acknowledged the competitive philanthropic environment for nonprofits, but said that other museums have adapted and thrived in the past.

He also said that he has not seen cases like the Berkshire Museum’s elsewhere in Massachusetts.

“The core ethos of our museums is still strong, and still intact,” he said.

Like many other industries experiencing disruption, the cultural economy looks to adapt in a state that still very much values the arts.

“I think the forecast is very positive,” Ferrin said of the arts economy in the commonwealth. “I do think the Berkshire Museum is an outlier, and unfortunately a victim of larger forces.”

She said that a strong arts infrastructure, like the MCC, is supportive and encouraging. Capasso echoed that opinion, but with a call to action.

“As the demographics and the money all goes towards the coast, it leaves everyone else behind,” Capasso said. “Museums have to come up with new models for survival.”

Paige Smith writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.