Ruth Bass: An olive branch cannot succeed if it bears no fruit

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By Ruth Bass

RICHMOND — Fait accompli. The French phrase means “it’s done.” It’s something that is not going to be undone. And it carries the extra weight of describing an action that was complete before anyone affected could question it.

That’s pretty much the right phrase for what happened with sale of the Berkshire Museum’s best art. By the time anyone on the outside knew what was happening, a stack of paintings was already safely stowed at Sotheby’s in New York, ready for the auction block.

Nothing in the definition of the often-used French phrase says the action involved has to be accepted, which was borne out by the prairie fire that broke out when the story of the sale was revealed. But the truth is that it’s over, and it’s time to douse the blaze of protest and think about tomorrow. Despite the opinions of some writers of letters to the editor, that’s not the easiest thing in the world.

It’s not unlike our national situation where the Democrats are still worrying the bone of defeat — to the point, now, of suing everyone they hold responsible — and the president is still gnawing — in an absurd way — on his win. Intensely involved, two sides in a controversy often find it hard to let go.

Also, anytime people suffer a great loss, tomorrow is suddenly the toughest day of the week. And they know survival of that day just puts another tomorrow in place. Many opponents of the sale of Church, Calder and Rockwell works became very involved in the issue emotionally and have been grieving since the judge’s decision recently ended the matter. Heartsick, one letter writer confessed.

When the court ruled, the chair of the museum’s board of trustees, Elizabeth McGraw, immediately extended the olive branch to a divided community and said it was time to move forward, time to unite, time to heal. The next question, of course, is how that can be done, especially since many of those who opposed sale of the art also have misgivings about the proposals for both the building and the mission of the institution.

The key, now as it always was, is transparency. The public, including people who have loved the museum for years and people who’ve never been inside its doors, need a clear picture of what the plans for the future are. That, as in every other case of great public interest — whether it’s trash cans or airport noise — calls for a series of public meetings in which the board presents the details of what the $50 million new dollars will be used for. The board of trustees needs to lay it all out, from the new direction of the institution to the reasons why the scientific innovations apparently require that a chunk of the structure be virtually gutted. And they have to do it knowing that the audiences will include naysayers whose questions must be answered with details and with respect.

Part of the healing probably has to include acknowledgment that those opposing the art sale had some good points on several fronts, that they were sincere in their concerns and that most of them do care about the survival of the venerable institution even if they disagree with what’s being done with the art. The Berkshire Museum, around the corner from the square (the oval square) that is the core of Pittsfield’s history, is a vital place to many of us — and our children and grandchildren.

What else? It might be a tough thing to do, but it’s now known that several museum trustees left the board in the past year or two. They may have left because they no longer wanted to give time to the museum. They may have quit because they could no longer endure the pressure of these past controversial months. They may have resigned because they didn’t like the new ideas. It doesn’t matter. The fact is that healing involves listening, and it’s not a bad idea to invite a couple of the dissidents to fill vacancies on the board and not only hear their ideas but let them hear the board’s thoughts in an official capacity.

Drawing from the best of the opponents of the art sale won’t mean abandoning the New Vision — the newcomers wouldn’t have enough votes to do that. But so many of the opponents are people of talent, people worth listening to, people with something to contribute. The board also needs to look at itself and at the community and figure out whether it represents enough segments of the population. Every group scores a lot of points by opening its doors and adding not only people who will question but also diversity.

Some of us often drive past the Richmond house where a very young Alexander Calder may well have started to think about the art of motion. We cannot help being saddened by the departure of any of his work from the Berkshires. But we also know it’s better to think about tomorrow than to try fixing yesterday.

Ruth Bass is a former Sunday editor of The Eagle. Her website is www.ruthbass.com

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