Muse Reporting on popular and fine arts

No such thing as free art

Arts | A Massachusetts museum draws criticism for financial prudence
by Lynde Langdon
Posted 9/08/17, 03:11 pm

A struggling community art museum in Pittsfield, Mass., thought it found a working solution to a financial crisis, but public backlash to the idea put it in an even more difficult position.

The Berkshire Museum announced in July a plan to cover a funding deficit by selling off about 40 pieces of art from its collection of 25,000 aesthetic and historical objects. The sale of the pieces, including two Norman Rockwell paintings, could have raised $60 million.

The Association of Art Museum Directors, which frowns on selling museum art to help pay museum bills, issued a statement condemning the planned sale, saying it would discourage “donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls.”

After the museum announced the sale, community members bristled at the thought, too. On Aug. 12, they protested outside the museum with signs declaring, “Save our art” and “Pause the sale.” But a lack of community support for art pushed the Berkshire Museum underwater financially in the first place.

“The annual operating deficit has been slowly building over the last 30 years as the museum lost its major patron,” board president Elizabeth McGraw said in a letter on the museum’s website. “Meanwhile, General Electric and other industries have left Pittsfield, leaving a major gap in corporate support.” The museum raises about $1 million annually but has had an average operating deficit of $1.15 million per year. That’s not uncommon for museums. Most cover the deficit with endowment funds. But the Berkshire has drawn its endowment down to less than $2 million.

Some community members suggested the museum cut its hours or close one more day a week to save money. But McGraw said such measures would barely make a dent in the museum’s financial burden. The Berkshire planned to use some of the $60 million expected from the sale to renovate its 114-year-old building and overhaul its programming to create a more sustainable business model. With or without those changes, the museum will close in a few years if board members don’t do something drastic, McGraw said.

The Detroit Institute of Arts faced a similar dilemma on a grander scale when the city went through bankruptcy in 2014. The city told the museum, which was sitting on a $4.6 billion art collection, to pony up $500 million to help pay off public debt, even if it had to sell some paintings. The museum hit the phones and raised more than $800 million from private donors, foundations, and the state of Michigan. The money went to pay off the city’s debts, helped saved public employee pensions, and ensured the art institute got to keep its entire collection.

Pittsfield admittedly has less on the line than Detroit, and donors are substantially less eager to bail the art museum out of its crisis. 

“The museum leadership has remained open to a concrete, substantive offer from a specific individual, group of individuals, or entity, provided it directly addresses completely and immediately the urgency and magnitude of the institution’s present and future needs,” McGraw told me in an email. “No viable alternative to selling the art has been presented.”

Like the college kid who watches Netflix using the neighbor’s Wi-Fi, or the sports fan who begs for a state-funded stadium, patrons of the Berkshire Museum want their entertainment, and they want it free.

Associated Press/Photo by John Minchillo, File Associated Press/Photo by John Minchillo, File The Rev. Bill Shillady speaks to the media in White Plains, N.Y.

Unoriginal wisdom

Abingdon Press is recalling every copy of a book written by Hillary Clinton’s pastor after discovering he extensively plagiarized its content. The Rev. Bill Shillady even borrowed the email message he sent Clinton the morning after she lost the 2016 presidential election, which he included in the book, from another pastor’s blog. Strong for a Moment Like This: The Daily Devotions of Hillary Rodham Clinton was a collection of some of the Scripture, devotionals and inspirational writing Shillady, a United Methodist Church minister, sent to Clinton during the campaign. 

“Abingdon Press has zero tolerance for plagiarism,” said the Rev. Brian K. Milford, president and publisher of The United Methodist Publishing House, which owns Abingdon Press. “Consequently, we have discontinued sales, will remove existing copies from all sales outlets, and will have them destroyed along with our existing inventory.” 

Shillady officiated at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding and the memorial service for Hillary Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Rodham. He directs the United Methodist City Society, a social service agency in New York. 

Clinton’s book What Happened, her first-person postmortem of the presidential election, hits bookstores Monday. Early reviews say the book is filled with scathing criticism of President Donald Trump, former FBI Director James Comey, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Russian President Vladimir Putin, and others key players in the 2016 campaign. —L.L.

Associated Press/Photo by Amy Harris/Invision Associated Press/Photo by Amy Harris/Invision Dave Matthews

Songs of Charlottesville

The Dave Matthews Band will headline a concert in Charlottesville, Va., on Sept. 24 as a response to violent protests by white supremacists in the city last month. Big name entertainers such as Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, Chris Stapleton, and the Roots will join the show. The Dave Matthews Band got its start in Charlottesville. A news release from the University of Virginia, which is hosting the event, said the concert “promises to energize and uplift the community in a celebration of inclusion.” Tickets are free, but concert promoters encourage attendees to donate to the Charlottesville Concert Fund to benefit first responders and victims of the Aug. 12 protest violence. —L.L.

The music lives on

Walter Becker, guitarist and co-founder of the rock group Steely Dan, died Sunday. He was 67. Bandmate Donald Fagen wrote in a tribute that Becker was “smart as a whip, an excellent guitarist, and a great songwriter.” Steely Dan continues to tour and has concerts planned in London and Dublin in October. “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band,” Fagen said. —L.L.

A remake too far

Warner Bros. announced it’s planning an all-female adaption of Lord of the Flies, and pretty much everyone thinks it’s weird. Vanity Fair summed up the prevailing sentiment nicely: “Not every story makes sense to gender-flip. Particularly if that story is William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies, a vicious tale about a barbaric boy-made society.” —L.L.

Lynde Langdon

Lynde is a WORLD Digital assistant editor and reports on popular and fine arts. She lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sun, 09/10/2017 08:37 am

    Go, Warner Brothers!  Smash the kinder, gentler woman stereotype!