By Charles Giuliano
Despite the growing number of artists in the Berkshires, there seems to be an effort, among large cultural institutions and the major media, to pretend that they are not around.
Arts tourism drives the economy of the Berkshires. In high season the area’s hospitality industry thrives as visitors come for Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, four equity theater companies, and several world-class museums.
Over the past decade there has been an expansion boom. Some $250 million has funded about 150,000 square feet of additional gallery and performance space. That has generated new hotels, restaurants, and entrepreneurship.
Long-depressed Northern Berkshire County has seen a steady influx of artists planting roots in renovated lofts and homes. Garages are converted to studios and there is the rush to make use of Airbnb and other sources of income. Equity for artist lofts has doubled, then tripled over the past decade. As have property taxes.
The growth of the arts community rates a sidebar in the national media’s sanguine travel coverage. Typically, reporters sleep over, talk to the usual suspects, and file that all is copacetic for art and artists in the Berkshires. Nobody bothers to visit studios and actually talk with artists. There is no interest in their struggle to survive or serious coverage of their work.
This indifference is reflected in the local media as well. Reviews of shows at Real Eyes Gallery in Adams, MCLA’s Gallery 51, Eclipse Mill Gallery, or the Berkshire Art Museum in North Adams are few and far between. As is the case for exhibitions at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts and Whitney Center for the Arts in Pittsfield. Despite the growing number of artists in the area, there seems to be an effort to pretend that they are not around.
In an effort to exploit the explosion in cultural activity, the Berkshire Museum behaved in a reprehensible manner. To my mind, former director Van Shields and former board president Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw looted the museum of treasures that were entrusted to their care. Two paintings by Norman Rockwell left to the museum for the pleasure of his neighbors — along with 20 other works — were auctioned for a net of $53.25 million. The plan was to use the money for an extreme makeover of the museum, the creation of an interactive bells-and-whistles science and nature program geared to educating children.
Initially, the Berkshire Eagle wrote a supportive editorial. My first letter of complaint to the editor was buried, but I was encouraged to tone down and resubmit. The momentum for the museum’s plans changed when Laurie Norton Moffett, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, posted a critical op-ed piece in the Eagle. The community was divided, with some, including MASS MoCA director Joe Thompson, supporting the museum’s sell-off.
The paper of record switched gears once it served up some superb investigative coverage by Larry Parnass. There was global outrage. Locally, artists organized protests and online pressure to “Save the Art Save the Museum.”
Eventually Shields was handed a golden parachute and left town once the museum had become a pariah in the art world. Some trustees resigned. In September, the Berkshire Museum’s board of trustees elected a new leader at its annual meeting. Ethan Klepetar — who has been a board member since 2011 and its vice president since 2015 — succeeds board president McGraw.
A new director, Jeff Rodgers, has the daunting task of mending fences and winning back the trust of the public. There has been no attempt to meet with community arts leaders, but he is asking for the area’s support through an annual appeal, the museum’s first, to raise $100,000. That effort has not gone over well.
Rodgers, with the backing of Klepetar, is attempting to recover professional and community standing on the institution’s own terms. In order to regain affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution, the museum must comply with standards of the American Alliance of Museums as well as the Association of Art Museum Directors. That’s all pending; last year the museum renewed membership with the American Alliance of Museums.
While the Berkshire Museum has been an obvious offender regarding the local arts community, other museums, including MASS MoCA, have also largely ignored its multiplying creative neighbors. And this is a shame. The Berkshire Museum has ample resources to fill an enormous and obvious need. For example, it should use some of its ill-gotten gain to hire a credible fine arts curator. It has been reported that a donor has offered the Berkshire Museum contemporary art worth $1 million. But there is nobody on site to implement such a gift or care for what it might buy.
An expanding number of artists are seeking to exhibit and donate to the Berkshire Museum collection, including artists with national reputations. For now, the museum has offered only a single show juried by someone nobody ever heard of. Artists ignored doubts about the setup in order to show work in a museum. Recently the museum announced another regional show juried by two artists rather than established curators. Prizes will entail offers for solo and group exhibitions. This is an eyebrow-raising strategy for low-cost programming that avoids appointing legitimate staff.
In addition to world-class museums there are a growing number of nonprofit and commercial galleries. These have received little substantial coverage in the Berkshire Eagle. The paper of record has established music (Andy Pincus), theater (Jeffrey Borak), and dance (Janine Parker) critics. Not that long ago the Eagle had a (now-retired) editor, Charles Bonenti, who covered major exhibitions. The beat for galleries and community centers was patrolled by Keith Shaw, who holds a PhD in fine arts. He did a terrific job seeking out artists up and down the county. For a time, he was a curator for the Berkshire Art Museum.
But Shaw left the Berkshire Eagle years ago after a dispute with an editor. [Keith Shaw’s statement below.] He has been missed. The newspaper has recently hired a new visual arts critic from within, former feature writer Jennifer Huberdeau. (On the newspaper’s website she is referred to as UpCountry Magazine Editor and Digital Features Editor.) In general, Huberdeau profiles artists or interviews the curators of museum exhibitions. She makes no attempt at critical evaluation. Just imagine the response of readers if theater and performing arts productions were covered in a similar way, offering no judgments. This backhanded treatment of the visual arts is not at all unusual in journalism. At the culture desk the fine arts are usually given the lowest priority. That is ironic, given the increasing value of the visual arts as an asset for cultural tourism in the Berkshires.
Given the strength and diversity of the fine arts in the area, it is time for the Berkshire Eagle to hire a qualified art critic.
Keith Shaw Statement:
In 2013 I stopped writing my column Gallery Walks for the Berkshire Eagle, which had focused on commercial art galleries in the region. During that time, there were quite a few to choose from. I can’t recall why I stopped writing, but I do distinctly remember that it had become an onerous and unenjoyable task. Kate Abbott was the editor and she seemed to delight in making the job difficult and pointless. Her specialty was fluff pieces about used bookstores, new ice cream parlors, or her own poetry. My academic approach to art was decidedly out of step with her editorial philosophy. I might have even been fired, or perhaps we simply parted ways out of mutual agreement. I certainly don’t miss it, and now the galleries have become scarce. I occasionally write for the Berkshire Edge, where David Scribner does a wonderful job.
Charles Giuliano is the publisher/ editor of Berkshire Fine Arts. The most recent of his six books is Counterculture in Boston: 1968 to 1980s.