Norman Rockwell Museum to study possibility of downtown expansion

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Photo Gallery | Norman Rockwell Museum eyes expansion

STOCKBRIDGE — The Norman Rockwell Museum, bursting at the seams at its current site on a former country estate west of downtown, is on the hunt for expansion, possibly to a satellite campus for an illustration, research and education center to house its burgeoning digital, scholarly and curatorial activities.

As part of the museum's ongoing bid to further heighten its national profile, Director/CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt has gone public with a plan to study whether it's feasible to undertake a multimillion dollar expansion by retooling Procter Hall, the former Town Hall on West Main Street, as a second location.

"This is an early step for us to say we're now going to seriously study expansion," she said, adding that building additional facilities at the current museum would be an equally appealing alternative. "Either solution is really outstanding and either outcome would please me, and the community we're connected with across the country would be well-served by either one."

The historic Town Hall, on land owned by the adjacent First Congregational Church, has been vacant for 10 years following relocation of the Town Offices to the former Stockbridge Plain School in the heart of downtown.

Norton Moffatt, leader of the museum for 30 years, expects a decision by next fall on whether to renovate the interior of Procter Hall while fully preserving the exterior, or to build out the museum's current, 36-acre site off Route 183.

Projected costs and the length of time for the expansion remain uncertain, but if it's feasible, a major national campaign would be needed to fund the plan. The public operation of the current museum would not be affected by the proposed expansion.

If the Procter Hall location works out, it would mark a return of the Rockwell legacy to the center of town, not far from the museum's original Old Corner House site, opened in 1969. The relocation to the former Linwood Estate was completed in 1994 at a total cost of $9.2 million.

In an interview on Thursday, Norton Moffatt said a master plan was undertaken five years ago, with an updated strategic plan over the past two years to pinpoint "where the museum wants to grow, who we have become in the nation, and the tremendous growth of our programming."

She listed not only increased activity at the museum itself but also the off-site work involving exhibitions and scholarship, "really being the nation's center for American illustration art."

"For quite a number of years, our program spaces have been very pressed for production of exhibitions, adequate space for lectures, the growing archive, the scholars who come here to work in the archives," Norton Moffatt said. "There's just no space."

To address "the clamoring" for expanded facilities, she said, potential areas for growth have been explored while maintaining the current campus in its pristine condition.

With the blessing of the 36-member board of directors, the museum has been quietly considering the possibility of a second site at Procter Hall. Discussions by the Town Hall Reuse Committee are expected to yield a report to the Select Board by the end of this month.

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The museum's goal was to determine if the building could accommodate space for production of the museum's traveling exhibitions, which Norton Moffatt described as "a very active part of what we do. Almost everything we present here now travels to other museums." She pointed to conceptual designs indicating that the old Town Hall would be suitable location.

Norton Moffatt depicted the Procter Hall site as "very interesting, worth studying further. We think it meets a lot of needs that might be challenging on this site" such as disruption to the main museum if expansion on the current property emerged as the final choice.

The Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, created eight years ago, now hosts 20 scholars to study the history of art illustration. But it has outgrown its space at the museum's library, she noted.

"There's a new appreciation for the importance of this visual medium reflected in the auction prices of American illustration art, a great ascending portion of the market," Norton Moffatt said, "and also in the number of museums that have taken our exhibitions, over 180 different partners and venues in the past 10 to 15 years."

"Procter Hall looks to be a very interesting potential option, along with what we could potentially do here," she said during a briefing at Linwood House, a short distance from the museum filled with visitors on a bright mid-October weekday. "It could be an amazing community project," citing the recent, acclaimed renovation of the town library.

"What I see emerging is a phased plan, because whatever we do to create space for the existing programs, whether on- or off-site, is going to trigger being able to reconfigure some of the space in the existing building because we'll be able to create larger space there for our lectures, art classes, school programs and office space," Norton Moffatt said.

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The new site would be a home for "everything that goes into the outward world," she said. "It would be mostly private, but there would be visiting scholars, a reading room for them, symposiums, a lecture from time to time and a board meeting room."

She compared the vision to the just-renovated Manton Research Center at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, which opens to the public on Nov. 12.

"That has been an inspiration for a long time," Norton Moffatt acknowledged, also citing up to 35 museums around the nation with dedicated research centers and institutes. "This one would be dedicated to American illustration art."

In a joint statement, Trustees Peter Williams and Robert Horvath, co-chairs of the Committee on Growth, noted that the old Town Hall "may have special appeal as it is across the street from Rockwell's first home in Stockbridge and was depicted in his famous painting 'Springtime in Stockbridge.' "

"Moreover, a village town hall is a seminal Rockwellian setting as portrayed in his classic work 'Freedom of Speech,' they added. "Bringing the museum's growing initiatives to Procter Hall would help preserve the fabric of Stockbridge's Main Street, creating a renewed use for the building as a place where educators, scholars and citizens come together for the exchange of civic ideas in true Town Hall fashion."

When Stockbridge was founded in 1739, town meetings were held at the First Congregational Church, which served as a civic center. A century later, the town constructed a free-standing meeting hall. In 1901, Procter Hall was built as a front-facing add-on to the original building. A second floor was added in 1960 for town offices and a meeting space.

The church owns the land as well as Procter Hall if the town no longer plans to use it.

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"Stockbridge really has an extraordinary history, and this community has taken care of its buildings while its intellectual legacy has worked its way out into the world," Norton Moffatt said.

"There's been a long history of tolerance and inclusion in this town," she said. "Despite the fact that our town may be going through a few bumps in the road right now, it's because people care so much about this community and want it to survive and thrive."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

At a glance . . .

Here are the uses under consideration for a second Norman Rockwell Museum site at the old Town Hall or an expansion of the existing museum:

• Production of traveling exhibitions

• The Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies for visiting scholars

• Digital engagement

• Archives and archival-processing

• Rapidly-growing collections of Rockwell's papers, illustrations, and other artists' archives

• Open-storage study gallery for researchers and scholars

• Office space for the curatorial department


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