A Company Town’s Economic Decline and Reinvention

In his extensively researched book In the Wake of the Giant, author Max Kirsch notes General Electric’s role in Pittsfield’s economic growth during the early twentieth century, and the devastating impact felt by the residents of Pittsfield when General Electric began eliminating thousands of local jobs in the late 1970s. Following the massive reduction in labor through the following decade, families, businesses, and tax income also left. Kirsch notes, “The thread that permeates through the changes in Pittsfield is dependency. The community is dependent on the corporation for the tax dollars that maintain the city infrastructure developed to house the plant and its workers; workers are dependent on the corporation for jobs; families on wage earners; and secondary industries on the wages that the workers generate.”1

Though the relationship between General Electric and Pittsfield appeared on the outside to be symbiotic, General Electric held all the power in its purse strings and public influence. In a 1982 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Commerce, economist Ben Harrison noted the main problem was, “Assuming the role of the primary industry in the area, GE kept out other industry and maintained a tight control over a highly skilled labor force.”Kirsch agreed, adding:

The belief that General Electric built the community is at the root of the differences between native and nonnative points of view. Since 1904, General Electric prevented other companies from settling in the area, had considerable influence over the city council, employed from the same families for generations, and provided a sense of security for employees. [When GE began layoffs,] Pittsfield became analogous to a small colonial state that had just been granted independence: it had no mechanisms in place to deal with its new status.3

During the period when General Electric was a major presence in the community, Pittsfield’s economy thrived. In their 1976 book Schooling in Capitalist America, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis pointed out that, “In 1968, the [Pittsfield] Boys Club launched a fund-raising effort that produced $1.5 million in ten weeks. Still, the boards of the Boys Club, the United Way, the YMCA and YWCA, and other community organizations reads like an elite list culled from GE and other major industries in the area.”4

Unfortunately, General Electric’s decision to begin downsizing its operations in Pittsfield had a catastrophic effect on the community. In The Annual Planning Information Report for the Fiscal Year 1982, the Office of the Massachusetts Division of Employment Security reported that “Pittsfield peaked in 1980 and predicted that the reliance on one manufacturer would result in a continued ‘slippage’ in the economy.”5

To make matters worse, General Electric began moving jobs from Pittsfield into cheaper overseas markets. In their 1982 book, The Deindustrialization of America, Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison noted, “General Electric, Pittsfield’s largest employer, expanded during the 1970s, adding 30,000 foreign jobs while decreasing domestic employment by 25,000.”6

Expressing some resentment in taking blame for the economic hit to Pittsfield, “One community relations manager told us during an interview in 1982 that GE could simply not play the role of ‘Daddy Warbucks’ anymore,” Kirsch noted.“The director of community relations at General Electric lamented, [Pittsfield] was an isolated community for a long time; solely built in this century in pioneering work by GE—the community hasn’t ebbed and flowed with the rest of the world.”8 Kirsch added:

For the residents of Pittsfield, disinvestment in basic industry by General Electric had drastic effects on the community. General Electric workers specifically trained for industrial work found themselves transferred to jobs outside their specialty or laid off with little chance of finding work paying the same wage; city leaders faced with reduced tax revenues scrambled with contradictory development orientations and a fragmented city government; the downtown area of the city deteriorated.9

According to the Regional Planning Agency at the Department of Housing and Community Development, Pittsfield’s population dropped from 57,000 in 1970 to 52,00 in 1980 and to 49,000 by 1990.10 Throughout the twentieth century, the Berkshire Museum, like many other non-profits, businesses, taxpayers, and schools, relied on the money brought into the city by General Electric through jobs, federal projects, taxes, and charitable donations. In Pittsfield’s heyday, admission to the Berkshire Museum was free. However, as General Electric’s presence in Pittsfield diminished, the economy in Pittsfield declined and donations fell. In 1991 the museum, facing annual operating shortfalls, was forced to institute paid admission for the first time in its history.

Like many Pittsfield businesses, the Berkshire Museum’s operating expenses exceeded income through subsequent years. In 2015, administrators of the Berkshire Museum were told the museum would close in less than eight years unless drastic measures were taken. After much consideration—in a decision no one wanted to make—the museum determined the only path forward required the sale of some of its treasured artworks.


Reexamining the Sale

Opened to the public in 1903, the Berkshire Museum began as an offshoot of the Berkshire Athenaeum (Pittsfield Public Library). Zenas Crane envisioned the eclectic collection of objects as a Smithsonian for the Berkshires. In 1932, the citizens of Pittsfield petitioned the state legislature to pass an Act that made the Berkshire Museum a separate entity, “for the purpose of establishing and maintaining, in the town of Pittsfield, an institution to aid in promoting education, culture, and refinement, and diffusing knowledge by means of a library, reading rooms, lectures, museums and cabinets of art, and of historical and natural curiosities.”11

Looking back in 2024, six years after the Berkshire Museum’s sale of 22 artworks, I believe the public should know all the facts behind the sale and what the future holds for Pittsfield’s community museum. As a Curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum in 2017, I was alarmed when it was announced that the Berkshire Museum would be selling artworks, including two paintings by Norman Rockwell. I considered one of the artworks, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, to be perhaps Rockwell’s greatest painting. I did not understand how a museum could decide to sell its artwork to fund what it labeled a “New Vision.” My ignorance to the facts was driven by three factors: poor messaging from the Berkshire Museum, a media more interested in a narrative of secret backroom talks over facts, and a few bad actors who managed to suit the story to their narrative.

“Transparency” was a buzzword the Museum used to defend its process, though in reality the message was anything but transparent. Until I began working at the Berkshire Museum, I was not aware of the Museum’s substantial financial problems and crumbling physical infrastructure. The Museum had several meetings with local reporters in which they detailed the dire financial situation, though that information was not relayed to the public. Many concerned citizens who opposed the sale of Shuffleton’s Barbershop may not have realized in the five years prior to the sale, the painting had been on display for less than two years due to concern about damage due to lack of adequate climate control and streams of water that would often run down the gallery walls when it rained. One employee recalls rushing into the Museum in the middle of the night to save Shuffleton’s Barbershop from a deluge of water coming from above. Vital improvements were urgently needed—the walls were not insulated causing condensation throughout the year, the roof leaked, floors buckled from rot, the basement leaked and had a mold infestation, the sewage pipe frequently overflowed, and on and on—problems not uncommon with 115-year-old buildings.

Instead of focusing on the fact that the building required urgent repairs, and the Museum had just enough money to pay the bills for six years, the conversation revolved solely around the “New Vision.” Though there was concern among generations of Pittsfield residents who held fond memories of the Berkshire Museum, the Director cheered that he would give “contemporary relevance to its historical artifacts.”12 To make matters worse, the published images of the design showed little thought was put into maintaining the Museum’s legacy, as pictures depicted a sensory overload of bright, colorful, technological interfaces and little of the museum’s beloved collection. I cringed when the Director told a reporter, “We envision almost being like in Harry Potter.”13

I believe the Board was being honest when they said “[We] acted in good faith and in the best interest of both the institution and the community it supports.”14 Others agreed, including Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini, when ruling that the sale could proceed, wrote that the Attorney General’s four-month investigation “has uncovered no evidence of bad faith, no conflict of interest, no breach of loyalty, no express gift restrictions, and yielded unconvincing evidence of implied gift restrictions or a breach of reasonable care during a two-year decision-making process.”15 The Superior Court deemed it “beyond objection” that the Museum’s “financial outlook is bleak.”16 On November 1, 2017, the Attorney General finally agreed that the Museum was in “serious financial trouble.”17

In early 2018, the Attorney General concluded the sale was “necessary to secure the future and the mission of the museum… Through the Attorney General’s investigation into the proposed sale, [they] determined that the Berkshire Museum has met its demonstrated financial need to lift or modify restrictions that limit or prohibit the Museum from selling the works.”18

I am 100% certain that the Museum would be permanently closed today if the artworks had not been sold. The stewards of the Museum had to make a bargain between losing 22 artworks or closing a 115-year-old museum and its massive collection built by the community, including 445 paintings that remain at the Museum. If the works had not been sold, the Museum would have run out of money by 2023 and the Attorney General would have dispersed the artworks at her discretion. All that would remain would be a crumbling building in disrepair formerly known as the Berkshire Museum.




Opposition and Support for the Sale

The Berkshire Eagle agreed with the Berkshire Museum on July 12, 2017 when it endorsed the sale as “an ambitious program to recapitalize itself and [updating] its mission is welcome news to Berkshire County residents and visitors.”20

An important regional museum official became a leading force in turning the public against the Berkshire Museum. After writing a Facebook post titled, “The Plundering and Dismantling of the Berkshire Museum is Announced,”21 and deleting it shortly after, spurned from a rejected private offer to obtain Shuffleton’s Barbershop for a fraction of its worth, on July 20 they told the Berkshire Eagle, “For the [Berkshire] Museum’s leadership, the potential price that these irreplaceable artistic treasures could fetch seems to have obscured their very rich role in the life of the Berkshires… Collectors did not donate objects and artworks to the museum so that they could later be ‘monetized’ and sold off.”22 Subsequently, the media’s stance on the sale changed dramatically.

Shortly after the interview, on October 31, 2017 the editors of the Berkshire Eagle declared the sale was no longer “welcome news to Berkshire County,” claiming “The Berkshire Museum’s deaccessioning breaks a covenant with the citizens of Berkshire County.”23

This one-two punch was the catalyst that divided the community and angered many. Berkshire Museum staff, many of whom had little to no knowledge to the details of the sale, had their lives threatened, lost longtime friends, and had to stay in hiding while their homes were being picketed. One person wrote to the Museum noting, “I would just as soon contribute to the Nazi party” as donate to the Berkshire Museum.24

It was falsely reported online, “There is also substantial evidence that the two most valuable works being sold—the two Rockwell paintings—were donated with the clear intention that they remain in the museum’s permanent collection, and not be sold.”25

Though he was also opposed to the sale, Director of the Worcester Art Museum, Matthias Waschek, noted, “We should not just say, ‘Thou shalt not. Thou be damned. We have all the money. Thou doesn’t. But thou be damned anyway…’ There’s a certain self-righteousness.”26

On July 28, 2017, Joseph Thompson, Director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, wrote in the Berkshire Eagle:

For over three decades, the Berkshire Museum has barely survived on a crimped, insufficient budget, making ends meet by deferring maintenance, trimming sails, curtailing wages, and cutting corners. Even so, the museum’s structural deficit—its annual shortfall—is well over $1 million per year, on a budget that is only $2.4 million. With rapidly diminishing reserve funds, the math is ineluctable, and the results are devastating: The institution is literally eating itself alive. We owe the current board and administration a debt of gratitude for shining a bright, public light on this alarming fact…

The Berkshire Museum does not rely on a single work of art, nor 40, nor even 400. The very being of many cultural institutions is built around particular works of art, or on the strength and concentrated essence of certain parts of their collection. Rockwell at Rockwell. Impressionism at The Clark.

The Berkshire Museum is simply not one of those. Instead, we cherish the Berkshire Museum for the quixotic diversity of its collection, and its power to draw interdisciplinary links between science, nature, and culture through layered educational programs. It can continue to do that with the 2,400 works of art in its collection and 38,000 other wonderful objects, specimens, and artifacts. It cannot do that, however, without the means to remain in business. When Berkshire Museum Executive Director Van Shields said that this is a moment of existential crisis, he meant it. Let’s get real: The museum’s survival is at stake.27

After the Sale

As part of the healing process within the community, the Chairperson of the Museum’s Board of Trustees noted, “We recognize the strong feelings of those opposed to any sale. We worked hard, particularly in the case of Shuffleton’s Barbershop, to address their concerns and keep the painting in public view and even in the Berkshires for a time.”28 The George Lucas Museum “agreed to place it on prominent display in its collection and loan the painting to the Norman Rockwell Museum for a period of up to two years.”29 Additionally, Frederic Edwin Church’s 1875 painting Valley of Santa Isabel New Granada, was added to the collection of The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where it will continue to be viewed by the public.

The results of the sale provided the Museum with $53.25 million. Some money was set aside to make necessary updates and repairs to the building, while most of the income was placed into an endowment that could keep the museum open for generations to come.

Repairs were scheduled for three stages:

Major projects in the first stage included sealing the building’s foundation, replacing the outdated sewer line, and installing a passenger elevator. Also, the museum’s beloved stegosaurus model, nicknamed “Wally,” returned to its fabricator at Jonas Studios in Hudson, New York for much-needed restoration before re-installation on the north side lawn.

The second stage of repairs included insulating the walls on the upper floor, replacing the floor on the upper level, installing modern lighting systems, adding restrooms, and updating gallery spaces. In addition, a freight elevator was added, allowing for larger objects and major traveling exhibitions.

The final stage will commence in Fall 2024 with the renovation and expansion of our outdated aquarium, insulation of the main floor walls, modernization of lighting and security, and a redesign of the first floor that refreshes the galleries while maintaining the spirit and charm visitors have grown to love over the Museum’s first 120 years.


  1. Kirsch, Max H. In the Wake of the Giant (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 4.
  2. Harrison, Ben. The New England Economy Project: Case Study Summaries, Policy Analysis, and Research Methodology. Report prepared for the Office of Economic Analysis and Research, Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1981).
  3. ———. In the Wake of the Giant (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 59.
  4. Bolwes, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life (New York: Basic Books, 1976).
  5. The Annual Planning Information Report for the Fiscal Year 1982 (Boston: The Office of the Massachusetts Division of Employment Security, 1982), 1.
  6. Bluestone, Barry and Bennett Harrison. The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry (New York: Basic Books, 1982), 9.
  7. ———. In the Wake of the Giant (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 48.
  8. Ibid., 59.
  9. Ibid., 17.
  10. Pittsfield, MA Consolidated Plans for 1995: Executive Summary (Springfield, MA: Regional Planning Agency, Department of Housing and Community Development, 1995)
  11. “An Act Changing the Name of the Trustees of the Berkshire Athenaeum and Museum to Trustees of the Berkshire Athenaeum and Incorporating the Trustees of the Berkshire Museum and Authorizing the Transfer to it of Museum Property.” Mass. Stat. § 1193 (1932).
  12. The Berkshire Eagle. “Berkshire Museum’s Ambitious Reboot.” July 12, 2017. Accessed January 12, 2024. https://www.berkshireeagle.com/opinion/editorials/our-opinion-berkshire-museums-ambitious-reboot/article_e0ef9590-d543-5282-9c5d-e0b9457fb356.html
  13. Stanmeyer, Anastasia. “Ten Minutes with Van Shields.” Townvibe, September 2017. Accessed April 8, 2024. https://web.archive.org/web/20170918081259/http://townvibe.com/Berkshire/September-2017/Ten-Minutes-with-Van-Shields/
  14. Catherine. “Berkshire Museum on Hold. Good Morning Gloucester. November 20, 2017. Accessed January 12, 2024. https://goodmorninggloucester.com/2017/11/20/sothebys-nov-21-auction-a-tale-of-two-agos-berkshire-museum-on-hold-but-james-prendergast-library-a-go/
  15. Rockwell v. Trustees of Berkshire Museum, No. 1776CV00253 (Mass. Super. Nov. 7, 2017).
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. WAMC. “Details Revealed in Berkshire Museum-Attorney General Agreement.” February 9, 2018. Accessed January 12, 2024. https://www.wamc.org/wamc-news/2018-02-09/details-revealed-in-berkshire-museum-attorney-general-agreement
  19. ———. In the Wake of the Giant (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 4.
  20. The Berkshire Eagle. “Berkshire Museum’s Ambitious Reboot.” July 12, 2017. Accessed January 12, 2024. https://www.berkshireeagle.com/opinion/editorials/our-opinion-berkshire-museums-ambitious-reboot/article_e0ef9590-d543-5282-9c5d-e0b9457fb356.html
  21. Jandl, Stefanie S. and Mark S. Gold, eds. Collections and Deaccessioning: Case Studies (Cambridge, MA: MuseumsEtc., 2021), 103.
  22. Saldo, Carrie. “What is a Painting Worth? Rockwell Director Cool to Berkshire Museum’s Planned Art Sale.” The Berkshire Eagle, July 20, 2017. Accessed January 12, 2024. https://www.berkshireeagle.com/archives/what-is-a-painting-worth-rockwell-director-cool-to-berkshire-museums-planned-art-sale/article_85980750-3bdd-59e9-b07b-7bd093d3a610.html.
  23. The Berkshire Eagle. “Berkshire Museum, Halt the Art Auction.” October 31, 2017. Accessed January 12, 2024. https://www.berkshireeagle.com/opinion/editorials/our-opinion-berkshire-museum-halt-the-art-auction/article_9fa0e693-8f4c-566a-ac47-dfa51b57f76b.html
  24. Name withheld. Received March 2018.
  25. Salmon, Felix. “The Berserk Battle Over the Berkshire Museum and Its Art Collection.” Hyperallergic, November 2, 2017. Accessed January 12, 2024. https://hyperallergic.com/409126/berkshire-museum-battle-sothebys-auction/
  26. Russeth, Andrew. “Vision Quest: The Berkshire Museum Will Stop at Nothing to Sell Its Art, Including a Masterpiece by Norman Rockwell.” ARTnews, November 20, 2017. Accessed January 12, 2024. https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/vision-quest-berkshire-museum-will-stop-nothing-sell-art-including-masterpiece-norman-rockwell-9356/
  27. Thompson, Joseph. “A Case for the Berkshire Museum’s Decision to Sell Art.” The Berkshire Eagle, July 28, 2017. Accessed January 12, 2024. https://www.berkshireeagle.com/archives/joseph-thompson-a-case-for-the-berkshire-museums-decision-to-sell-art/article_19251f3d-3c14-57e0-a06b-ae11b6c5e0e3.html.
  28. Frenier, Adam. “Berkshire Museum Art Auctions Slated to Begin in May.” New England Public Media, April 10, 2018. Accessed January 12, 2024. https://www.nepm.org/regional-news/2018-04-10/berkshire-museum-art-auctions-slated-to-begin-in-may
  29. Rosenbaum, Lee. “Market Madness: Sotheby’s to Auction 13 Berkshire Museum Works this May.” CultureGrrl, April 10, 2018. Accessed January 12, 2024. https://www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl/2018/04/market-madness-sothebys-to-auction-13-berkshire-museum-works-this-may.html