Architect Christopher Parkinson shows off a model he created of the renovated museum, which will have much more open space inside.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire Museum was faced with a choice: change, move or die.
For the last decade, the museum has faced a $1.1 million deficit in its budget, setting a course for failure. Executive Director Van Shields called it a threat to the museum's future.
In response, the century-old institution has crafted a bold $60 million plan to not only get its financial house in order but also modernize the museum and how it operates.
"When a species is threatened, they either adapt, migrate, or go extinct. In human terms, that is change, move or die. We aren't moving. We can't serve if we die. Therefore we must change and nothing short of a comprehensive solution is necessary," Shields said.
Shields said the museum is seeing increased visitors, but financial support has not been trending the same way.
"Rising costs and a changing economic and philanthropic environment within our region has threatened our financial sustainability," Shields said. "The Berkshire Museum has been struggling financially even while experiencing a burgeoning demand for its services to the community."
The museum is auctioning off 40 pieces of art, including two Norman Rockwell paintings, to bring in more than $50 million. At the same time, the organization has launched a fundraising campaign to raise another $10 million — of which $5.4 million has already been raised.
From there, the Berkshire Museum will create an endowment with $40 million to right its financial ship and then invest $20 million in improving the museum.
"We will integrate treasured objects with cutting-edge technology and new interpretative techniques, and a fresh perspective that aims to extract contemporary relevance from historical artifacts. We will transform static museum galleries into active learning laboratories," Shields said.
Particularly, the museum will be undergoing a massive renovation. Local architecture firm Arcade has crafted a model and rendering showing a much more open facility — particularly with the creation of a three-story atrium as the "heart" of the museum. A brand new lobby and a new performance space also will be constructed.
"A lot of the way we were approaching the design was trying to open up some of the congestion that years of additions started to make," said architect Christopher Parkinson.
Parkinson said most of the work will be in the interior and an effort has been made to preserve the external facade. The architects worked to balance the historic pieces of the building while bringing it into the current century.
"What we are trying to suggest in the renderings is to be respectful of the historic characteristics of the building. When you enter and go through that historic facade, you'll be immersed in a very contemporary environment that feels very of its time. That is one of the goals and I think it is something the museum has been struggling with, feeling a bit dated. Here is an approach that embraces both its history and its future," Parkinson said.
The museum will feature much more interactive technology and place a greater emphasis on science and history than ever before. That goal came directly from some 400 members of the community who museum officials had worked with in the development of the plan. The living world gallery, including the aquarium, will be spruced up within a 5,000 square-foot exhibit on the main floor.
"Rather than imagining what the community wanted from us, we asked them. How refreshing is that?" Shields said. "When we asked the community you said you wanted a heightened emphasis on science and history and we listened."
The museum will remain "interdisciplinary," with exhibits in art, science, and history, as founder Zenas Crane envisioned in establishing it in 1903.
"We are staking the claim to being an interdisciplinary museum because we know the powers of interdisciplinary interpretation holds great promise," Shields said.
The museum also has plans to break out of its walls and interact closely with the community. Shield said it is embracing the idea of having "no boundaries and no borders."
"It doesn't stop with bringing people to the museum. We plan to bring the museum to the Berkshires. With our new Berk Boxes, designed to be taken to schools, community centers, bank lobbies and other places that people gather, we will take the museum on the road. That's just the beginning of our desire to become a distributing museum experience," Shields said.
The "reinvention plan" is a bold move for the historic museum but one many felt was needed. John Bissell, from Greylock Federal Credit Union, said the world is changing rapidly and the museum has to keep pace.
"When I was a kid growing up here in the Berkshires we could come here on school visits or family visits and it seemed like inside of these four walls nothing changed," Bissell said.
City Councilor John Krol said the plans are particularly good for children and will do a better job at reaching and educating them when they go to the museum. He praised the museum for sticking to its mission of serving the community, even if it means selling off pieces of art.
"The Berkshire Museum needed to find ways to be more hands on, needed to find ways to be more exciting and interesting for children which means you need to have more things they're interested in like the interactive type of technology. It seems as though they did listen," Krol said.
John Bissell raised a toast to the museum officials.
Board of Trustee President Elizabeth "Buzz" McGraw said difficult decisions had to be made, specifically the selling off of the collection, but in the end, the museum will stay relevant long into the future.
"We are united in our enthusiasm for moving forward with its implementation," McGraw said. "As a board, we've worked tirelessly over the last two years to ensure the future of our beloved museum."
The museum is a significant piece of the city and the county. Art, culture, and tourism are integral in the county's economic landscape.
1Berkshire President Jonathan Butler said the Berkshire Museum is a critical piece to that in the way it is often the first introduction to art and culture for many people.
"It is not only a tremendous community resource to Pittsfield and even the larger Berkshires but it is an essential introduction for families and children to the world of culture, of art, the world of history and science. If you look around the Berkshires we have world class art and culture. The Berkshire Museum, in many instances, acts as that introduction for people," Butler said.
Butler praised the steps the museum is taking, "our organization commends the bold approach the museum is taking. The region is changing, the region is evolving, and it makes a lot of sense that the Berkshire Museum evolves with it. They are taking an approach is that putting the best interest of our future forward."
The museum is also a cog in the wheel for the city's downtown. For the last decade, the city has placed and emphasis on revitalizing its main drag. Mayor Linda Tyer said the investment being made to upgrade the museum shows a commitment and confidence in the city's downtown.
"I am so pleased that the board, under the leadership of Van, had made some difficult decisions. They are bold and visionary and this is going to change the landscape of art and culture in our downtown," Tyer said.
"With every new investment, every new project, including the downtown market rate housing, what it proves to me is all the hard work that so many different organizations put into the renaissance of our downtown is starting to pay off. We have to keep nurturing that in order to get over the finish line."
Shields believes when enacted, "the return on our investment will be mighty."
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