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.