Ten Minutes with Stephen Sheppard
The Berkshire’s go-to economist
Photo by Megan Haley
Stephen Sheppard, economics professor at Williams College, specializes in urban growth and vitality, land use, and the effects of the arts sector. He finds the Berkshires a compelling study of how a creative economy can rescue a community from despair, drive it—and then potentially reach a point of too much of a good thing, Sheppard has questioned the Berkshire Museum’s auctioning of 40 pieces of art to save itself from economic ruin. (A state appellate judge has blocked the sale—for now.) Sheppard recently took a class to New York City. While there, they viewed some of the works, including two Rockwells, at Sotheby’s.
What are the challenges that institutions have in our creative economy?
There is money out there and people are interested in investing, but everybody wants someone else to jump first. They want the imprimatur of, well, so-and-so has decided to put $10 million into this project, so you don’t want to be the one who is left out. It is a matter of getting someone to jump first.
The Berkshire Museum asked you to do an economic-impact study?
I had known that selling the art was their plan since January. I was just swamped. They did have a problem that could be cured with $13 or $14 million of fundraising. They didn’t need $40 or $50 or $60 million of the proceeds of selling the art to solve that.
Does this move worry you?
From a purely economic perspective, I worry whenever somebody is misstating economic numbers to try to achieve some other objective, and I think there’s a little bit of that going on. I worry that it will make a relationship with the community more difficult.
So you are opposed to the new vision?
I am sure the first time that the BSO played Mahler, people were outraged. And now that is just one of the warhorses they play all of time. Cultural institutions change, and the Berkshire Museum should be allowed to change. From an economic perspective, running a museum involves some things that are pleasant and some that are unpleasant. It is very pleasant to announce a new show, to be interviewed by Berkshire Magazine, to be regarded as a pillar of the community. It is all fun. What is not fun is begging for money. If we routinely allow museum directors and museum boards to deaccession artworks, they will never go out and raise money because that is unpleasant to do.
What are the biggest challenges for the Berkshires?
Population loss is a real problem, and I think that 1Berkshire and the Berkshire Regional Planning Council, and a number of other groups are appropriately concerned about that. The need to diversify the economy is another issue that I see as getting not as much attention as it should. We punch way, way above our weight in terms of the creative economy, in terms of Tanglewood and MASS MoCA and all that stuff. We punch way above our weight in terms of education with MCLA and Williams and Simon’s Rock and Berkshire Community College.
More light manufacturing. The demise of KB Toys, GE, and Sabic has also meant that business services, like auditing, accounting, and financial services, have also gone away.
How do you get them back?
Improve transportation. The idea that improved connections to New York City, probably involving some kind of train, would be really helpful for the local economy.
Why would a commuter system work?
Business people will say I can work on the train and I don’t have to drive. Improving transportation will improve other aspects of the economy prospering here. The creative economy would be enhanced by having those connections. You’ve got a metro area of 21 million people, a city of nine million. Only half of those people own cars.
It is extremely easy in Berkshire County to oppose new housing development, and I think that is making some types of housing more expensive then they need to be. If housing was less expensive, you would have more people living here.
Are there many job opportunities here?
There are, actually. A lot of them require training that people don’t have, but a lot of employers are willing to train workers. It is a bit of a perception problem.
What would you like to explore?
I am really interesting in the process of competition between nonprofits. You have Clark Art and you have Norman Rockwell and you have [Williams College Museum of Art] and you have the Berkshire Museum, and then MASS MoCA opens up and there is a lot of happy talk about it: Isn’t that wonderful, isn’t that great. And it is great, and it has been a net plus for the region. So can we keep adding museums and expect that that will work out forever? Understanding how that competition plays out is almost completely not studied in economics.
How would you describe the Berkshires?
We are like this loose confederation of communities, similar to what you would have with the United States with no federal government. The Commerce Department does all kinds of external promotion. 1Berkshire is the closest thing, and it relies on subscriptions of its members. We also depend upon other businesses to work as agents to produce an external face for the region.
And our population?
People think, Oh my God, we are losing population and everywhere else is gaining. That’s not true, really. There are places losing population for similar reasons, mostly for economic restructuring, post-industrial kind of reasons. That is largely what is happening here.
Is it good for a community to rely on cultural tourism?
It’s a good idea for a community to have cultural tourism as one of several viable economic sectors.
Is that hard to do?
It doesn’t have to be. There is a sense in which, having a more successful local manufacturing economy, or local business services sector, could help the creative sector. It could bring in more people with sufficient income to make donations to support the Berkshire Museum or whatever.