This has been a year of painful and necessary conversations. Focused by a presidential election, and by a depressing stream of events from Ferguson to Charlotte, matters of race, class, violence and America's place in the world are at the forefront in a new and important way.
This fall, Berkshire art museums are engaging this moment with exhibitions that are challenging and designed to push viewers — and often artists and the museums themselves — outside their comfort zone. They are carving out spaces for these debates in a way that reshapes how we still often think about museums: they are no longer one-way conversations aimed at their audience.
Perhaps the highlight of the coming weeks is the opening on Oct. 16 of Nick Cave's "Until," which will fill Mass MoCA's signature, football-field-sized Building 5 space. Cave is best known for his "Soundsuits," a series of "wearable sculptures" that are physically spectacular and festive, and are displayed with elements of dance, theater and music.
But "Until" is his most ambitious work yet. The space will be filled with a fantastic landscape of found objects, sculptures of birds, flowers, and black-faced lawn jockeys, all festooned with millions of beads and accessories. It is a grand-scale immersion in questions of race and violence, which in a preview in the New York Times last summer, he said began with the bold questions of whether there is racism in heaven.
"I view this work as a theater set, or an elaborate community forum, as much as a work of sculpture," Cave said in a program note.
Race and violence is also at the center of an exhibit beginning Oct. 7 at the Williams College Museum of Art, where the privately held and rarely seen painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat will be a catalyst for discussion about the enduring issues it first confronted 30 years ago. "Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)" is in Basquiat's distinctive, vibrant, downtown style shaped by graffiti art. It is a comment, bristling with anger and pain, about the beating death of artist Michael Stewart by New York police in September 1983.
Its arrival is painfully timely. "We've been thinking a lot at the museum about how we can be more responsive to things in the world, and to issues and important conversations going on around campus," said Sonnet Coggins, WCMA's associate director for academic and public engagement.
A series of programs are planned around it, and the room is open to any student group, class, or community group who wish to include it, and can sign up through a form on their website.
"This space is one that the community ends up curating with their own participation, rather than us producing a dialogue about a work of art and presenting it," Coggins said. "It inverts that, and to me that's very important."
Also at WCMA is another show that pushes comfort zones. Peruvian-born, German-based artist David Zink Yi, who in "Being the measure" explores his interest in musical sculpture and octopuses. It includes a number a minimalist wooden sculptures the divide the space geometrically, and which can be played, as well as a number of life-sized bronze tentacles.
This is Zink Yi's first solo museum show, and opens Oct. 7. It was designed specifically for WCMA and its unusual octagonal galleries, and will include performances throughout its stay.
"What's exciting for us is to build a new project like this with an artist, and to leverage our intimate environment to work closely with him and allow him to explore a new side of his practice," said curator Lisa Dorin. "And it really activates our space with performance, which is something we've dabbled in a bit but would like to do more of in a great way with something designed for this space."
In other challenging shows at WCMA, "State of Disobedience" explores the way transgressive art leads to unexpected discoveries. The show features 33 works of contemporary painting, photography, sculpture, and video, all from WCMA's collection, and half of which haven't been shown before.
The show's title comes from an essay by poet Alice Notley about disobedience as a state of mind. "She's using the term not really as a means of rebellion or refusal, but as a way of opening up to unforeseen possibilities," said curator Anna Kelley, a graduate student at Williams.
Across Williamstown, the Clark Art Institute takes a breather after its major summer show of masterpieces from the Prado with a show about based on its own collection. "Photography and Discovery," which opens Nov. 12, is a collection of images from the late 19th century, a time when the still-new technology "offered viewers new ways to discover unfamiliar people, distant places, and things previously unknown to them."
The Clark will also celebrate this fall the opening of the refurbished Manton Research Center on Nov. 12. This completes the museum's long string of major building projects that has spanned the past decade and reshaped the campus, and will be marked with a series of discussions and events that opening weekend.
Another highlight for the season, in a sense, takes us away from the tumult of our time and back to the comforting memory of Saturday mornings in front of the TV with a bowl of sugary cereal. Opening Nov. 12 at the Norman Rockwell Museum, "Hanna-Barbera: The Architects of Saturday Morning" is an inside look at the work of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, whose studio produced a long list of beloved characters like Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, the Flintstones, The Jetsons, Johnny Quest, and Scooby-Doo. It traces their first work in the old film studio system, through their glory years in the '60s', and to the '70s when they produced about two-thirds of Saturday cartoons.
"These two guys were partners for over 60 years, and saved the animation industry when the studios were closing down film animation in the mid to late 1950s and took it to television," said Jesse Kowalski, the Rockwell Museum's curator of exhibitions.
The show includes concept art, drawings, storyboards, animation cels, and photos of the design and writing team. Most of the work comes form private collections.
"Everybody has been so excited because there hasn't been a show on Hanna-Barbera, and a lot of people feel the studio didn't get its due for saving animation."
The show will include a database of characters and a Saturday morning cartoon screening series.