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The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge commemorates its 50th anniversary in 2019. We spoke to Museum Director & CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt about the artist, the venue, upcoming events and about the power of art to inspire and foster change.
Laurie, tell us about how you came to the Norman Rockwell Museum?
I have spent my career at Norman Rockwell Museum, starting while I was a student of art history at Connecticut College. Norman Rockwell wasn’t studied in art courses at that time. Joining the staff at the original Museum located at The Old Corner House, I was struck by how moved our visitors were when they encountered Rockwell’s original art in person. Soon thereafter I was appointed the Museum’s first curator, and later director in 1986, and with our board and staff, witnessed and led the growth of the Museum from a small house in Rockwell’s hometown of Stockbridge to become the nation’s center for American illustration art. The joy, surprise, and impact that Norman Rockwell’s art has on all who view it has continued to inspire me throughout my years with the Museum. When we realize that illustration art is all around us—telling our stories, shaping and reflecting our understanding of ourselves and the world—we can better appreciate how these images reflect and change our lives.
What type of visitor comes to the museum and what else do they do in the Berkshires when they’re here?
Everyone visits! Illustration art, and especially Norman Rockwell’s work, is so approachable and relatable, that most visitors feel welcome exploring our Museum galleries.
The Museum is a destination as well as a favorite place for families to return to again and again, seeing old favorites and enjoying the many new programs we offer. Our own Massachusetts residents comprise 25% of our annual attendance, with 75% coming from around the nation and worldwide. Group tours and school field trips are also a mainstay of our visitation, thanks to robust educational offerings, including daily gallery talks with an expert team of docents.
From children to seniors, near and far, our visitors are diverse, but they share a typical reaction. We hear repeatedly that a visit to Norman Rockwell Museum leaves you happier than before you arrived; as well as the discovery of Rockwell’s talent as a master visual storyteller. Exploring the many illustrators, historical and contemporary, whose art is featured regularly in changing exhibitions, offers further joy for our visitors.
Norman Rockwell called Stockbridge home for the last 25 years of his life, and greatly enjoyed the peace, community, and creative inspiration he found here. The Berkshires continue to inspire and draw people to enjoy the many renowned museums, performing arts venues, galleries, historic places, outdoor adventures, and welcoming hospitality.
Tell us more about the founding of the museum in 1969, and what you are doing to celebrate the 50th anniversary.
In 1967, a group of concerned citizens in Stockbridge came together to figure out a way to save a beautiful 200-year-old home, then known as The Old Corner House. Little did the women who led the charge know then that they were birthing what was to become Norman Rockwell Museum.
We are looking forward to a magical year of looking back and looking ahead with a robust schedule of exhibitions and events. Woodstock to the Moon: 1969 Illustrated, one of three featured anniversary exhibitions opening in June, will highlight art that illustrated both hopeful and historic events from 1969, such as man’s first step on the moon, Woodstock, the debut of Sesame Street and the opening of Norman Rockwell Museum. We are also sharing with the nation and the world—from Washington, DC to Normandy, France— Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms and Civil Rights era paintings promoting social justice, in a traveling exhibition to commemorate the 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ideals so eloquently painted by Norman Rockwell.
Speaking of the Four Freedoms, how do you think Rockwell’s most famous series resonates today as compared to the 1940s when they were created?
When Rockwell’s Four Freedoms originally appeared as a series of story illustrations in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, they were instantly embraced across the nation. They were employed as official images for the War Bond effort, and went on a multi-city tour. We know that these paintings continue to resonate and inspire hopeful aspiration for people today, as witnessed by the emotional reaction visitors have to the paintings, and in the continuous use and reference to the images.
In thinking about how contemporary artists might envision the meaning of freedom today, we held a national juried art competition, which would incorporate the selected works into the touring exhibition. Many similar themes of freedom emerged, told in current stories of immigration, equal justice, women’s rights, and a hope for a more inclusive world. The basic human aspirations for freedom of speech and worship, and meeting fundamental needs of safety and sustenance are timeless and enduring.
What was it about Western Massachusetts that informed Norman’s art and kept him inspired?
Norman Rockwell loved people and his Stockbridge community. Whether it was the neighbors and friends who posed for him, the numerous artists in the Berkshires, professional friendships with Dr. Austen Riggs and Erik Erikson, cultural relationships with such theologians as Reinhold Niebuhr and Rabbi Harold Salzmann, or famous celebrities like John Wayne and Frank Sinatra, who came to town to have their portraits painted—everyone seemed to love and admire Norman Rockwell, and he reciprocated these feelings of kindness and community. He met and fell in love with his third wife Molly Punderson, retired English teacher from Milton Academy, at a poetry class she held in Stockbridge.
Stockbridge has such scenic beauty and a fascinating history, dating to the 17th century as a pre-colonial village that was originally home to the Stockbridge-Mohican Community led by Chief Konkapot. Since that time, the town has attracted many distinguished citizen thinkers, theologians, literary figures, diplomats and artists, who have woven a rich tapestry of America’s history.
Thank you Laurie.