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Berkshire Museum Executive Director Retiring Amid Art Sale Scandal

Protestors at the The Berkshire Museum in 2017.
JD Allen
Protestors at the The Berkshire Museum in 2017.

The Berkshire Museum announced Thursday that its executive director is stepping down. Van Shields was one of the architects of the museum’s controversial art sale plan to fund a renovation and endowment.

The Berkshire Museum issued a press release Thursday morning announcing the departure of Executive Director Van Shields, who led the museum since September 2011.

“We are grateful for Van’s leadership and vision, especially through a challenging time,” said Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw, President of the Museum’s Board of Trustees. “Van helped chart a course to secure the museum’s future, true to our mission and responsible to our community. We wish our friend well in his retirement.”

In July 2017, Van Shields announced a bold new vision for the Berkshire Museum to renovate its downtown Pittsfield building and change the museum’s character.

“From scientific specimens to historical objects to works of art, our collection has been unique in the region since the museum’s founding," said Shields. "We are in fact the Smithsonian of the Berkshires. Now building on this legacy, we are creating a new Berkshire Museum.”

He said the change would include more interactive science-based presentations.

“We will transform static museum galleries into active learning laboratories and we will extend our leadership position as the region’s authority on science and natural history for the general public,” he said.

Shields cited a two-year planning process and hailed the museum’s public outreach.

“Rather than imagine what our community wanted from us, we asked them. How refreshing is that?" asked Shields.

Shields framed the museum’s economic situation as perilous, saying the institution was losing more than a million dollars a year.

“In evolutionary terms, when a species is threatened, they either adapt, migrate, or go extinct. In human terms, that’s change, move, or die," he said. "We aren’t moving. We can’t serve if we die, and therefore we must change. And nothing short of a dramatic comprehensive solution is necessary. Act now, and act boldly to avoid a crisis down the road that threatens our very existence.”

He then announced a unanimous vote from the Museum’s board to sell 40 pieces of art from its collection to raise “at least $50 million” to fund the museum’s “reinvention”, renovate the more than century-old building, and bolster its endowment.

“These artworks have been deemed no longer mission critical, and the sale will include two Norman Rockwell paintings, Shuffleton’s Barbershop and Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop," said Shields. "The board knows this is the right thing to do at the right time for this community.”

One of Shields’ statements earlier in the address would prove ironic, given the move to sell work donated to the museum by Stockbridge artist Norman Rockwell. Shields had said one of the museum’s aspirations was “putting more Berkshires in the Berkshire Museum.”

The plan was immediately controversial, setting off a chain of board resignations, protests, interjections from the Massachusetts Attorney General, and a deep rift in the Berkshires and beyond.

Two months after the plan was announced, in September 2017, The Berkshire Eagle reported on Shields’ previous attempt to execute a similar transformation at a museum in South Carolina. His efforts there “crashed amid allegations of bad management, inadequate fundraising, institutional secrecy, loose spending, and an initial disregard for the archaeological legacy of the Catawba Indian Nation.”

In the press release announcing his resignation, Shields said “I have been honored and privileged to lead this extraordinary museum and its talented staff. Working with a board of dedicated and smart volunteers, along with community partners who share our belief in the museum’s power to transform lives, we have charted a course that will well serve the museum and this community.”

Carol Diehl, a member of Save The Art – Save The Museum, spoke with WAMC news after Shields’ resignation was announced.

“It shows that the board recognizes the damage that Van has done and the damage that has happened in this last year. However, it doesn’t fix anything. There is no offer of fiscal transparency,” Diehl told WAMC. “The museum is also still committed to further sales. They’re still committed to making $55 million, which is a huge amount for a museum of that size. It’s happening on the backs of the community. It’s our art, we’re funding it, and we need to know where it goes and how it’s going to be used ethically.”

As of press time, the museum says the sales – which have been picketed by Berkshire community groups in New York City – have raised $42 million, including the Rockwell works. One of them, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, is on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge on an interim basis before it joins the collection of the Lucas Narrative Art Museum in Los Angeles.

Dr. David Ellis, who has experience leading museums in the Boston area, will serve as The Berkshire Museum’s interim director.

“I look forward to working with the Board of Trustees, the museum leadership, and the staff to make the transition that secures the course to a strong and sustainable future,” said Ellis.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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