Ten Minutes with Van Shields
The Berkshire Museum's Director
Photo by John Stanmeyer
Van Shields anticipated backlash over selling off 40 pieces of art to finance a renovation and to create a permanent endowment at the Berkshire Museum. But he wasn’t expecting some things—like being called a “douchebag.” Raising the most ire is the planned auctioning of two Norman Rockwell paintings to fund the $60-million proposal. The institution has auctioned its art before—under former director Stuart Chase in 2008, three paintings by Boris Dmitrievich Grigoriev sold for $7 million. But is this different?
Why are you doing this?
We are going to elevate the museum into becoming a higher-tier attraction. By differentiating in the marketplace, we are going to fit into the cultural mix better.
You’re not there now?
We’re certainly not a top-tier attraction in terms of art, and we never could be. But we think we can be a top-tier attraction in terms of a different kind of museum experience. It is about serving this community.
Isn’t that what the museum already is doing? So you’re not reinventing yourself?
It’s evolutionary, more than revolutionary. It is going to be a reinvention. All of it is going to be unified into one core experience. It is really about people understanding themselves better, and understanding the world around them better. That is why we are shaping our collection around an intentional idea.
What is that idea?
This museum was founded on being “multi-disciplinary,” which would mean you have art over here and history over here, and they never met. But the world isn’t like that. We intend to make the museum interdisciplinary. Were you forced into this situation? The philanthropic, economic environment has changed dramatically because we have the loss of corporation or consolidations, and so on. In the last museum’s capital campaign, there were two banks that gave $750,000, and that is now one bank operating in four states. They are not making those kinds of gifts any more. And then there is the old family model where people would write a check to plug the gap, and that is kind of gone away. Museums aren’t Disneyland. They don’t make it on the gate. So, for us, it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge the fact that financial sustainability, and the value of the work that we are going to sell, is a critical component of the whole plan.
How can you sell “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop”?
Our board just spent two years and a tremendous amount of analysis and sweat and toil and angst and political courage to get to where we are. If something else happens, then it’ll happen, but it will not be because we take a pause. We’re not going to stop. What I want to happen is to save this museum and turn it into this community. We’ve got everybody’s attention, we’re moving on, and let’s see what happens. There’s just no interest in the board in pausing after they have been so deliberate and courageous to make a dramatic move. Personally, I believe that whatever happens is the best thing that happens. If the paintings leave here, so be it. There’s a Rockwell museum right down the street.
Can you understand the criticism?
I can see where they are coming from. These paintings, it is not like we are throwing them out the window. They will always be cared for. They will always be nurtured, they are virtually immortal. And probably most of them will migrate, if not immediately, back to public view, perhaps at museums that enjoy much greater attendance than ours.
The paintings will still be accessible to the public?
Maybe, maybe not. But what I am saying is that ultimately, all of them will. It may be decades from now, or it may be days from now, but if you think about it, the virtuous cycle of collecting and giving away to public institutions, then collecting, it is just reality.
How did you choose the 40?
With this interdisciplinary idea, it was like a rationalization process—why this and not this.
Why is it a reinvention?
The museum’s collection is going to be on view in a way that is going to be pretty spectacular. We envision almost being like in Harry Potter.
What is the timetable?
The schematic designs on the architecture side are due by the end of December, and then the schematic designs on the experience side lags a few months after that, because you ultimately have to shape the experience to the architecture. I think something’s going to start happening in 2018.
Do you think Norman Rockwell would have approved?
I would like to think that he would be delighted to know that his gift to the museum would help sustain it for a century. Don’t think that I’m not feeling the pain, but if we don’t do something, the museum is going away.
What keeps you up at night?
The highly polarized nature of our society. If we do our job right here, it may be that we will transform lives in such a way that people will have a better understanding of their connections with each other, their connections with living systems. Cultural institutions are really good at transforming lives.