While visiting my sister on the East Coast last week, I had the chance to visit two very different museums – the Norman Rockwell Museum and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Years ago, I visited the Berkshires in western Massachusetts while living in Boston, but I wanted to go back to reacquaint with the rich historic and cultural life in the area, including these two museums. My role at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum allowed me to enjoy this familiar place in a new way, and I hope to bring a few details I observed back to my design work.
My first destination was the Norman Rockwell Museum. The Museum’s galleries offer a look at a rotating selection of the 998 original Rockwell drawings and paintings in the Museum’s collection. As a lover of mid-century art and design, this place is always inviting me to return. Norman Rockwell spent the later years of his career living and working in Stockbridge, MA, a few miles down the road from the Museum site. His workshop was moved from Stockbridge to the grounds of the Museum in the 1980s. At its new site, the building can be visited for a short docent-led tour that puts this Institution’s attention to detail on display. Because Rockwell’s workshop was so well documented by the many photographers he worked with, the Museum is able to recreate the items he used and displayed in his space at different times of year.
As I walked back in time into the small, red, barn-like building, I saw exactly what Rockwell’s workshop looked like in October 1960, while he worked on his well-known painting Golden Rule. This work was a commissioned cover for the Saturday Evening Post. Part of the ongoing debate about the end of segregation in the U.S., the work was one of the first times the magazine allowed Rockwell to show his support for the civil rights movement. Because almost all of his work was commissioned either by magazines or major companies like Kellogg’s and Mass Mutual Insurance for advertising purposes, the Museum offers a unique snapshot of what life and culture was like during such an idealized, yet volatile time in American history. The evolution of Rockwell’s willingness to challenge traditional boundaries surrounding race later in his career can be seen within the Museum’s galleries – allowing for a deeper appreciation of his work.
The next stop was the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), which offered an experience in complete contrast to the Rockwell Museum. Nestled in a beautiful valley between the mountains and hills of the Berkshires, MASS MoCA features room after expansive room of mostly large-scale installations. The Museum comprises 250,000 square feet of contemporary sculpture. Originally a printed textile factory that was converted into an electronics manufacturer in the mid-century, the many connected buildings have a breathtaking monolithic impact on the viewer. It seems clear that the artists lucky enough to exhibit here are inspired by the expansive and selectively preserved spaces they are given to show their point of view. The vast spaces appear to lift so many of the constraints that a normal gallery space might impose. MASS MoCA is a destination every contemporary art lover should try to visit at least once.
After being in these two very different, yet equally immersive spaces, I feel re-motivated to help bring these types of experiences to as many people as possible in central Wisconsin and beyond. Western Massachusetts will probably be a place I return to again and again to find new motivation and inspiration when the need arises. Traveling through the quaint and historic towns on the way to these two great museums is always worth the trip.