Arts Commentary: All Is Not Copacetic for the Fine Arts in the Berkshires

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.

The Berkshire Museum. Photo: Wiki Common.

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.”


Protest at the Berkshire Museum. Photo: Facebook

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.


  1. Pennie Brantley on January 31, 2020 at 11:31 am

    Charles, thank you again for crusading for the visual artists who are laboring away in the Berkshires. We may offer satisfying rewards to the audience who seeks us. Believing that the arts (ALL of them) make the world a better place, I feel that no education is complete without at least familiarity with art.

    While a number of us are happy that our work gets attention elsewhere, it is a shame that so many of our citizens are unaware of the astounding riches being created by living artists in their midst.

  2. john leavey on January 31, 2020 at 12:45 pm

    Interesting article, however the 1 sentence,” a regional show juried by 2 artists rather than an established curators” brings to mind that Edwin Dickinson told me that he would never serve on a jury (of paintings obviously) with a lay man (his term for all non painters) even if it were Berenson. Old as I am,I knew several Curators at the Met having had lunch several times with them as a young student. They were not Academics, The painting world is largely run, one might say by Professors, and this includes Curators, not to speak of painting instructors. This is of course a minority opinion, that few will agree with.

  3. Lynn Villency Cohen on February 3, 2020 at 1:32 am

    The very fact that over the past three decades, non profits arts organizations – museums, dance, theater and music companies and historic homes – have become the economic engine for the region is really a fascinating transformation. The explosive creativity and offerings that these organizations generate is of great significance, translating into area jobs, tourists and revenue.

    I am of the opinion that the Berkshire Eagle does an excellent job in their extensive coverage of the area’s cultural landscape, promoting so many of these organizations and their wide ranging offerings. Your criticism that the paper’s reporting in the fine arts sector – in galleries and museums – lacks deeper discussion is not a fair one, given that the majority of newspapers, even in large cities that boast a multitude of art museums and galleries, have radically reduced cultural reporting staffs to a bare minimum. For more pointed discussions, it is the fine arts magazines, periodicals and bloggers who cover the polemical discussions and art historical contexts that you so desire.

    • Bill Marx on February 3, 2020 at 11:51 am

      This comment neatly reinforces Charles’ point in the commentary. The purpose of the Berkshire Eagle, at least when it comes to the fine arts, is to promote rather than provide professional criticism. That was not always true — why do we have to accept the journalistic downgrade?

    • Peter Dudek on February 4, 2020 at 10:48 am

      What fine arts magazines, periodicals and bloggers who cover polemical discussions and art historical contexts would be, or should be covering, interested in covering artists who reside in and make work in the Berkshires?
      This can only happen on a regular basis by a paper or magazine in and of the Berkshires.

      • Lynn V. Cohen on March 3, 2020 at 6:27 pm

        The above comment – snide and rude in its direct mocking of my words – comes from a point of bitterness. Try a little civility – you may just feel a little better about yourself!

        The Berkshire Eagle – covers the arts and all that is happening in art, music, dance, theater in an thoroughly exemplary fashion – Most would agree.

  4. Keith Shaw on August 23, 2022 at 12:18 pm

    I agree with Peter.

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