What the Deaccessioning Dilemma Says About Museum Leadership

auction block

It’s been six months since the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA announced its New Vision , and then dropped the other shoe, telling the public that the cost of the new vision would be underwritten by selling 40 paintings from its collection. And for more than 182 days, the museum world has been in an uproar. If you played a word association game, and the words were Berkshire Museum, way too many of us would respond with “deaccessioning.”

We wrote about the  controversy months ago when it seemed the sale was imminent. Since last summer, deaccessioning’s become a new word, something parsed by journalists and art critics alike who tried to explain that even though the use of proceeds from deaccessioned items is not a law (except for New York State Education Department-chartered museums and historical societies) or even a rule, it’s a professional standard museums are expected to live by and with. And while Nina Simon may be correct, that use of proceeds from deaccessioning is an inflexible and antiquated standard, for those museums that are collecting institutions, it functions like the nuclear deterrent, holding big and small institutions in check, a necessary yet Faustian gamble that collecting institutions buy into. And here’s the logic behind that antiquated standard: Museums are non-profit organizations because they hold property (often collections) in the public trust. If those same collections can be monetized at the drop of a hat, where’s the trust?

As a museum, your non-profit status is, in part, secured by your organization’s willingness to stand behind your mission, and in doing so, make objects, art and the like available to all of us. So like Nina Simon, we believe  the Berkshire Museum controversy is not an issue solely about deaccessioning. It’s about leadership. Why? Because the Museum’s deaccessioning is a by-product of a series of decisions made by the board and director. It’s the story of a local, regional and national community who responded negatively, not only to the proposed sale, but also to the move toward a museum far more committed to science and technology than to art and the gentle “Window on the World” concept of its founder.

Granted, we only know what the Berkshire Museum has shared on its website, but when organizations anticipate change they examine the future like master chess players, thinking through as best as they are able, all the consequences of their actions. How did the the Museum’s 21-member board and its director get this so wrong, producing such a firestorm of antipathy?

If you read the Berkshire Museum’s timeline for its Master Planning Process, you discover that together with Hancock Shaker Village, it hired TDC, a Boston-based firm specializing in non-profit management three years ago. It was TDC’s 2015 report that stipulated “significant need for capitalization in order to provide sufficient endowment for the Berkshire Museum to support its operations.” (Side note: Among the eight principals on TDC’s website, not one has an arts background, much less a museum background.) And it was TDC who hired Experience Design out of Providence, RI, “to help identify scenarios for the Museum’s future and produce an interpretive plan for the scenario ultimately selected.” Again, we don’t know the real story, only what the Museum chooses to write, but based on its website, there is an odd distance between the Museum and its community. And neither the New Vision nor the Planning Process Timeline express much joy or love for the elegant Renaissance Revival building or its contents.

So what lessons can we learn from this as yet unfinished drama? Here are five thoughts for board members and directors to consider. We don’t know whether they apply in this situation, but we offer them nonetheless.

Being a board member–and some would argue being a museum director–is about service, collective work to safeguard, interpret, collections, ideas and living things for and with the public. Lesson 1: Know your institution. If the only places you know how to find at your museum are the board room and the restroom, you don’t know enough. Learn the campus. Find the furnace room. See collections storage. Know whether exhibit design is done on site or somewhere else. Know the staff by name. Know the important pieces, places, and their stories.

Remember in serving and protecting the institution, you serve your community which may be local, regional, national or international.  Lesson 2: Know your community. If you have questions about who participates at your museum, ask them. Remember, you need to know three things: Who your community is as a whole; who comes to your museum and most importantly who doesn’t. If you are considering a change, will it serve those who love your organization and make those who are indifferent into friends? If not, why not?

Don’t believe that an absence of affirmation means your community doesn’t care. To quote Joni Mitchel sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. Lesson 3: Be a good communicator. Individually, but most importantly collectively, boards need to communicate clearly and well. If you’re on the board, and you don’t understand something, how will the public understand? Just because a board operates as a collective body doesn’t mean it can’t (and shouldn’t) engage in vigorous discussion around change.

Trust is something that’s earned. Lesson 4: Trust your community. To trust them, you have to know them. (See Lesson 2). That means if you hire consultants on a planning project, you have to provide them with every bit of knowledge you have, and let the chips fall where they may. It means if your hope to change your institution depends on the sale of much loved pieces, you need to say that.

And the last lesson? If you’re asked to serve on a board, believe in the institution that’s asking. Anything else is like buying a house you intend to tear down.

Tell us how your board faces the big decisions.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 

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6 Comments on “What the Deaccessioning Dilemma Says About Museum Leadership”

  1. Bruce Moseley says:

    Well said. Thank you.

  2. Laura Roberts says:

    TDC is a solid consulting firm that has done many important museum projects over the years. Please do not paint them as insensitive to the operations and norms of museums.

  3. EP says:

    Why does this article paint TDC’s very reasonable statement re: the need for increased capitalization to build endowment as one that reflects a lack of understanding of museums? To build an endowment capable of sustaining a museum’s operations–even partially–does require A LOT of capital. Did TDC recommend acquiring that capital through deaccessioning? Most museums would probably undertake a capital campaign to raise those funds from donors. The real question should be, why did the Berkshire Museum did not or felt it could not.

    • Good point. I may have missed that – but if I was them, I’d have publicly distance myself and made it clear that they in no way condoned or recommended what transpired. The other dirty little secret is that the board started contemplating selling the art to raise money ca 1992, if not earlier. The irony is that because of all this publicity they NOW really are in a position to raise that I estimate to be the approx $10 million needed to sustain what they are and have.

  4. Outstanding. I don’t know much about TDC – but I checked out their web site – and its the familiar, predictable – B-school con job all about the things you can measure and rather indifferent to the intangibles. They should be ashamed to have finger prints on this epic mess. If you haven’t seen this video – you can be sure it contains info and aspirations that TDC also missed – that the board missed – that matter. https://www.youtube.com/edit?o=U&video_id=-7sAWQoNE6U

  5. Linda Cleary says:

    I think the Berkshire Museum board’s actions show they do not believe in the mission of the institution. Having grown up in Pittsfield and lived in Western MA for almost my entire life, the appreciation of the Berkshires has never been as widespread than it is now. More than ever, the Museum has an environment that is most conducive for promoting its richness as a regional museum. Yet, the board itself has no appreciation for the cultural heritage of the Berkshires and thus has no interest in promoting the museum as it is. Sadly, for some, serving on a board is more a means to achieve social status than a call to service.


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