The Norman Rockwell Museum turns 40

Thursday, July 02

STOCKBRIDGE -- When the board of directors at the Norman Rockwell Museum first proposed moving from a quaint but cramped old house on Main Street to a new building in the town's Glendale section, the public response was like nothing ever pictured in the iconic artist's representations of his adopted hometown.

Gone was the reverential tone of "Freedom of Speech," where a working-class citizen rises to address fellow attendees at a town meeting. It was replaced by deep division, as the town wrestled over Rockwell's legacy, over what he meant to Stockbridge and what Stockbridge meant to him.

From January 1983 through May 1984, town voters and museum supporters haggled over the proposed move to Glendale. Would it deprive Stockbridge's Main Street of a presence that had come to define it? Or would it create a stronger Rockwell museum?

In a dramatic town meeting held in the high school auditorium and documented by 15 television cameras and a gaggle of reporters, voters approved a bylaw that allowed the museum to move from its original home at the Old Corner House to a new $9.2 million complex, including the 27,000-square-foot, $4.5 million museum on Glendale Road in 1993.

Now celebrating their 40th year overall, museum officials have never regretted that decision.

With nearly 140,000 visitors last year and an average of 148,600 over the past five years, according to the institution's annual report, the museum has become an institution that both preserves Rockwell's legacy and nurtures his art form, expanding the public's understanding of illustration.

"We present Norman Rockwell's art in the context of the whole field of American illustration, an art that tells the story of us and the nation and our culture," said Laurie Norton Moffatt, the museum's director and CEO since 1986.

That celebration of Rockwell's legacy will hit full force Saturday when "American Chronicles," a major touring retrospective of his most popular work, returns to the museum for a two-month run. For Stockbridge, the relationship with Rockwell has become an integral part of the community's identity, perhaps most clearly embodied by the annual re-creation of "Main Street at Christmas," when the town literally makes itself into a Rockwell painting for a day.

That celebration of Rockwell's legacy will hit full force Saturday when "American Chronicles," a major touring retrospective of his most popular work, returns to the museum for a two-month run. For Stockbridge, the relationship with Rockwell has become an integral part of the community's identity, perhaps most clearly embodied by the annual re-creation of "Main Street at Christmas," when the town literally makes itself into a Rockwell painting for a day.

"The Rockwell Museum is one of the top tourist attractions in Stockbridge," said Selectman George Shippey. "It greatly benefits our local economy and beyond. The uniqueness of the Rockwell Museum is evidenced by their creativity -- they are always bringing in new exhibits, which increases the visibility of the museum for its visitors."

Moffatt said Rockwell's work emulates Stockbridge, just as Stockbridge emulates Rockwell.

"You see it in the wonderful paintings, like ‘The Runaway,' where it is so clearly discerned that the police officer is your friend and is going to take care of you. When you go to get a marriage license, the clerk is going to know you. It is the sense that people know and care about each other. That played out in Rockwell's paintings and, I think, is alive and flourishing in this community."

In 1969, the Old Corner House officially became known as the Stockbridge Museum, and it included several paintings that Rockwell had lent to the Stockbridge Historical Society. But as interest in Rockwell's art grew, the relationship between Stockbridge and its most famous resident -- he moved there from Vermont in 1953 -- nurtured the institution into a vibrant curator of Rockwell's work.

After four decades, the museum has established itself as the authoritative center for Rockwell's art and has supported that mission with a foundation of financial stability. With an annual budget of roughly $4.7 million, it generates revenues -- before the recession -- of roughly $4.9 million a year.

Admissions generate nearly $1.3 million in income, while the museum's store -- with brick-and-mortar and online sales -- produces nearly $1 million. Donations to the institution represent another $600,000 in a typical year, while grants from federal and state governments and foundations can yield from $400,000 to $1.3 million in a given year.

The balance is made up with revenue from other income sources -- like proceeds from its café-- and the returns on a $3 million endowment.

But the recession has taken a toll, Moffatt said, and all sources of revenue are down. Last fiscal year, the museum trimmed spending by 10 percent and will cut another 2 percent this fiscal year in the hope of breaking even. Even so, Moffatt said she expects to borrow from the endowment to balance the books and "maintain momentum" on some programs.

The Rockwell won't back off on its growth plans, Moffatt said. It is in the midst of a $25 million capital campaign that began in 2006, has no end date, and already has raised more than $18 million in gifts and pledges, including $10 million worth of donated artwork.

It is a key step toward the goal of expanding the endowment to $20 million and, just as importantly, supporting the new Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, which will link museums, libraries, colleges and other institutions with collections of American illustration in a Web-based network.

The Rockwell Center will support scholarly research of American illustration, fostering a deeper understanding of the impact illustrators have had on the culture, Moffatt said.

"In many cases it is the illustrators who have told our story and our history through published mass media with millions and millions of viewers," she said. "It had a very profound, culture-shaping influence, but it has not had the depth of academic study behind it."

Walter A. Reed, founder of the Illustration House in New York City, an auction house and gallery, said the Rockwell Center means the museum will become "more and more influential in serving as a kind of clearinghouse for illustrations in general, as well as Norman Rockwell's work."

In many ways, Reed said, Rockwell's legacy has helped bolster the country's appreciation of illustration art. After Rockwell's death in 1978, critics and customers gave his work a second look, and Rockwell began to bridge the divide between illustration and art. This peaked with a 2001-2002 show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, a temple of modern art.

"That helped to modify the disdain for illustrators," Reed said. "The Rockwell Museum has unflaggingly promoted him and mounted many shows that promote him, and I would say that has had a major effect in influencing public opinion."

But only a portion of the museum's promotion manifests itself in marketing. The annual budget for advertising hovers between $150,000 and $200,000, Moffatt said.

Instead, the museum relies on traveling exhibits to spread word of the museum, and on educational outreach among area schools and to teachers across the country. It also cultivates as much news coverage as possible: Its annual report for the 2007 to 2008 fiscal year lists articles or items about the museum that appeared in 35 magazines and newspapers and on 14 television and radio stations.

"Our challenge is to be able to communicate what the museum does on a regional level and a national level," Moffatt said.

The museum's online efforts are a form of marketing, seeking to engage a generation that has come to live its life online, Moffatt said. That means teens and 20-somethings who do their homework, get jobs and socialize on the Web.

But the effort to make the museum virtual is not meant to replace the tangible. Moffatt said there still is no substitute for the visceral reaction one gets when standing in front of a painting, as the painter meant it to be seen.

"Seeing how moved people are by Norman Rockwell's art is the most wonderful part of this job," Moffatt said. "The museum has grown by public demand, and it really is a museum that has been created by its audience. That is what drives our growth and how we will look to connect with audiences in the future."

To reach Jack Dew:, (413) 496-6241.

The Norman Rockwell Museum is averaging 148,600 visitors a year over the past five years. The breakdown:
2007-2008 140,000

2006-2007 140,000

2005-2006 157,000

2004-2005 150,000

2003-2004 156,000

Source: Norman Rockwell Museum

Prominent Rockwell donors

Individuals: Nationally, movie magnate Steven Spielberg and the Disney family (Walt Disney and Rockwell were mutual admirers). In the Berkshires, Petricca Industries CEO Perri Petricca, landowner Lila Berle, and the Fitzpatricks, a prominent business family.

Corporate: Time Warner, Kraft Foods, Curtis Publishing, Price Chopper, Mead Paper, Harnischfeger mining equipment.

Source: Norman Rockwell Museum


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