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Berkshire Museum To Use Art Sale Funds For Multi-Million Dollar Improvements, Redesign Plan

A white man stands in front of a large stone building
Josh Landes
Berkshire Museum Executive Director Jeff Rodgers in front of the museum in 2019.

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is undertaking a $3.5 million improvement and redesign plan using money raised by a controversial art sale in 2018.

Executive Director Jeff Rodgers – who took charge in spring 2019 – says the project fulfills what the museum set out to do with the art sale, including original Normal Rockwell works, that provoked local and international outrage and intervention from the courts when it was announced in 2017.

“The two biggest promises at the front was to be able to sustain the museum financially into the future, that’s what the endowment does," he told WAMC. "And then it was taking care of these deferred maintenance issues that have plagued the museum for so long, and that’s precisely what these things are doing.”

He announced on a virtual press conference that a slice of the over $50 million raised by auctioning off pieces of the museum’s collection is going into the effort.

“The first order of business was to put a new sewer line into the museum. Our century-old, sometimes dysfunctional sewer line was due to be replaced,” said Rodgers.

The foundation of the 118-year-old building was also waterproofed.

“It's an old field stone foundation, and it had been allowing water into our basement area for way too long," Rodgers continued. "This is where our collection storage area is, where our aquarium is. It was absolutely essential that we secure that part of the building.”

The museum’s freight lift has been expanded to the second floor.

“This gives us the ability to bring objects from, say, temporary traveling exhibitions or large objects that we have in the museum safely into the space and move these large objects up to the second floor down into the basement," said the executive director. "Being able to move objects easily, safely through the museum, it's going to be big for us because it's really going to allow us to activate our second floor in ways that we have not been able to do in the past.”

Rodgers says the museum’s insulation also got an upgrade, as well as its floors: the second level now has entirely new oak flooring. New LED lighting and a new grid of electrical outlets have also been installed. But that’s just the beginning of the second floor’s transformation.

“Now when you come up the stairs, you are not going to be greeted by a blank wall," said Rodgers. "We are opening up that space, we are reclaiming what was the catering kitchen. And we are creating new spaces in what were the gallery 201 and 209 to either side of them.”

Some basic amenities long lacking from the second floor have been installed, as well as new ways to see Pittsfield from the museum.

“The open space in between two new all-gender restrooms on the second floor, a quiet space and sitting area with a water fountain," said Rodgers. "It opens up to the windows that you can see go out to a view on South Street.”

Gallery space has been reconfigured, too.

“I hesitate to call them classrooms, because these are so much more than that," he explained. "These are multifunctional spaces. They can do traditional classroom duty for us. If we've got field trips that are coming into the museum, and are going to break the kids out for an experience or an activity while they're exploring exhibits on the second floor, this is the place for that. Summer camps, this is the place for that. They're also tech wired so that these become high end meeting spaces for folks who, when the day comes, and you have to get back on a Zoom call, you'll be able to do that from this space.”

Classroom space on the first floor has been converted to offices for the museum’s staff.

“You'll notice when I talk about the gallery spaces on the second floor, I am not talking about new permanent exhibitions," said Rodgers. "There are no dioramas, there is nothing permanent about these spaces. Future of the museum is all about flexibility, being able to adapt, being able to be nimble, and to change.”

While museum staples like the resident mummy and a replica of the famous Winged Victory statue will remain, Rodgers says the new vision embraces an interdisciplinary mission.

“These give us the opportunity to put those objects into new contexts by bringing other objects that are related to them in different ways that can tell different stories," he said. "These can stand alone, these can come together. Think of it like a Lego set, where we can create conversations between objects with these mobile museum units. We're looking at having 30 of these and they'll be spread out throughout the museum. They will always be moving. There will always be new objects and new ideas associated with them.”

The project is projected to be completed by the summer.

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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