Jeff Rodgers started this week as the new executive director of the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Friday morning, Rodgers joined a class from Dalton’s Craneville Elementary School for a tour of the museum’s Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion exhibition. It was the first time the new executive director has made a public appearance or addressed reporters since it was announced in January he would be filling the shoes of Van Shields, the museum’s last leader who retired in June 2018.
Rodgers replaces interim director Dr. David Ellis, who has bridged the gap in permanent executive directors since Shields’ retirement.
Rodgers says the goal of the exercise was part of his plan to understand the museum from every vantage point.
“Student, educator, kid, parent, adult, what our staff is doing to interact with the kids and how they’re facilitating these types of experiences," he told reporters. "So it’s all learning for me at this point. And this is a great place to do that because I love da Vinci’s stuff, and there’s something for all of us to learn in here. So my goal today is to play and be a kid.”
Rodgers is coming on after a bruising year and a half for the Berkshire Museum. In July 2017, Shields said in stark terms that a radical re-envisioning of the museum was essential to its survival, and announced a fundraising plan that called for pieces of its collection to be sold at auction – including works donated by Norman Rockwell, who lived and worked just south of Pittsfield in Stockbridge.
The money raised by the sales would fund a transformation into a more interactive, science-based facility – and bolster its endowment and renovate the building. The outcry was quick and overwhelming. Critics protested the sales in Pittsfield and at Sotheby’s auction houses in Manhattan. The Association of Art Museum Directors placed sanctions on the museum, and the Massachusetts Attorney General intervened to put a cap on the sales at $55 million. The sales – which fell just short of the limit – concluded in November 2018 with 22 pieces auctioned off.
Rodgers – formerly the provost and chief operating officer of the South Florida Museum – says the controversy around the museum didn’t scare him away.
“Museums face challenges," said the new executive director. "This museum faced a challenge. Clearly there were some heated conversations that were happening in the community. But a place like this deserves to survive and thrive. You’ve got to figure out a way to pick up on the other side of all of that and move an institution forward. So that’s what I’m here for. I’m not here to look back, I’m here to say, ‘This is a remarkable place with fantastic resources, how do we turn that corner and look towards the future?’”
He says his first priority is to deeply study the museum, its collection and exhibitions, and the experiences it can provide the communities it serves.
“I’m not going to impose my vision on this museum," said Rodgers. "That’s not my goal at all. That’s why I immerse myself first and I get a sense of what kind of place is this, how is it interacting with its community. The idea of coming in from the outside and saying ‘this what the museum should be’ – that’s not me, that’s not my style. Nor do I think it should be.”
Rodgers did offer a baseline for what he hopes to achieve.
“Make sure that this is the best museum for the community. Engage people in different types of authentic experiences in the museum. Activate the collections in new and interesting ways. Create evergreen experiences where every time you come back you’re getting a different perspective, getting a new way of looking at what we’ve got and how it relates to you and your world," he said. "That’s what a good museum should do.”