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Berkshire Museum Director Exits After Year Of Controversy

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Creative Commons
The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The executive director of the Berkshire Museum, who's recently led the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, institution through big plans and much controversy, is retiring.

Van Shields has led the Berkshire Museum since 2011, but he drew a lot of national attention over the past year. The museum decided to sell dozens of works of art to shore up its finances, pay for renovations and fund what it called a "new vision."

That brought criticism from art museum organizations and lawsuits from some museum members.

But the sales went ahead, earning $47 million so far. Just this week, the museum announced another nine paintings will be sold privately or auctioned off in the coming months.

The group Save the Art, Save the Museum said Shields's departure shows "the board recognizes the damage [Shields] has done."

The Berkshire Museum's statement announcing the retirement offered no change in strategy. Board President Elizabeth McGraw said Shields "helped chart a course to secure the museum’s future."

The leadership change took effect immediately, according to museum spokeswoman Carol Bosco Baumann. When asked if the board requested Shields's resignation, Baumann replied, "It was Van's decision."

Shields made nearly $140,000 during the museum's 2016 fiscal year, according to its IRS filing. 

Baumann declined to say whether Shields received a severance package. She said the institution does not comment on personnel matters, citing a "longstanding practice in protection of privacy."

Baumann confirmed that Shields, who is 68, was on medical leave at some point last fall.

The museum named an interim director, David Ellis. The 82-year-old perviously held temporary leadership positions at the Boston Children’s Museum and the Harvard Museum of Natural History. A national search is planned for a permanent replacement.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Van Shields is 82 years old. That is incorrect, and relied on information from a museum spokeswoman, who later said she misread our question. Interim director David Ellis is 82. Shields is 68.

Sam Hudzik has overseen local news coverage on New England Public Media since 2013. He manages a team of about a dozen full- and part-time reporters and hosts.
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