THE Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams is a cavernous temple of modern art, with exceptionally big and provocative works in a variety of media. The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., by contrast, serves up a whole different aesthetic, one filled with soda fountains, family dinners and sweetly nostalgic takes on small-town life.
The two museums stake out opposite positions in the art world. But together they add up to a eye-opening, art-infused weekend trip. Both are in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, which makes for easy back and forth. Both speak to children — Mass MoCA for its sheer eccentricity, the Rockwell museum for its gentle humor. And for adults, there is the pleasure of the contrast between the two.
Art museums can be a tough sell for young children. Traipsing through quiet galleries hung with serious-looking paintings can quickly take on the feel of a forced march.
So while my husband and I love to look at painting and sculpture, we have tried to kindle a passion for art in our children by introducing them to museums of all kinds, but in small doses. Though only 6 and 9, they have been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art more than a dozen times, as well as more esoteric venues, from P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens to the Picasso Museum in Paris.
It seemed fitting, then, to plan a weekend trip entirely around museumgoing, with two experiences not easily duplicated in major cities. In early spring, we settled in at the Porches Inn, directly across the street from Mass MoCA. Consisting of eight Victorian row houses once occupied by factory workers, the inn has 47 smart guest rooms whose décor the owners call “retro-industrial-granny-chic” — in other words, a synthesis of the two museums we had come to visit.
Best of all, at least from our son and daughter’s point of view, was the heated outdoor pool — open year-round and around-the-clock. After a day of art-gazing, nothing rejuvenates like the yin and yang of warm water and chilly air, with wisps of steam rising toward the darkening sky.
When it opened in an abandoned industrial plant almost a decade ago, Mass MoCA became an instant hit, providing an outlet for sculptures that were too large for all but a few museums. The center also gave a boost to North Adams, a moribund mill town whose largest employer, the Sprague Electric Company, left in 1985, laying off nearly 2,000 workers.
Set against a New England backdrop of buxom hills flecked with steeples, the Sprague plant, with 27 buildings on 13 acres, had an undeniable charm. With a proud clock tower, worn brick facade and multi-paned windows, the 19th-century complex begged to be reinvented.
Mass MoCA is a place of serious whimsy, where unusual artistic ideas are allowed to flourish. Outside the entrance is a stand of upside-down maple trees, held aloft by a large steel-and-timber frame. Created by Natalie Jeremijenko, the sculpture is called “Tree Logic.” Somehow, the six trees manage to grow, though some branches twist upward in a vain attempt to reach the sun.
It is just the sort of project our 6-year-old son, Sawyer, might have conceived and executed, but for lack of an underwriter. He beamed as he took it in, shooting us a look of mischievous pleasure. Our daughter, Amelia, was beginning to appreciate the elastic boundaries of fine art as well. Inside the museum she pointed to a small recess in the wall, below a label describing a nearby sculpture. “Is that the piece of art?” she asked. “The hole in the wall?”
Her confusion was understandable. After all, in another gallery sat a 42-ton sculpture by the renowned German artist Anselm Kiefer — an undulating mass of concrete some 80 feet in length, sprouting rusty filaments of rebar. Until recently, the sculpture adorned the lawn of a couple in Fairfield, Conn., where it puzzled and ultimately annoyed the neighbors. They thought it looked more like demolition debris than art, and the Historic District Commission of Fairfield insisted on its removal.
The 2002 sculpture, entitled “Etroits Sont les Vaisseaux,” or “Narrow Are the Vessels,” is on extended loan to the museum, where it looks almost elegant in the center of an artfully lighted gallery. Our children enjoyed the tale of its provenance, appreciating the irony.
But it was the Jenny Holzer installation called <object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="434565;433700">“Projections,”</object.title> which occupies a gallery the size of a football field, that was the show-stopper for our children. The gallery is vast and dark, except for two powerful beams at either end that project the poetry of the Polish writer and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska. The huge lines of text — “Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton, in every other way they’re light,” for example — elongate and distort as they scroll in opposite directions across the floor and ceiling.
As if this weren’t enough, the artist has sprinkled flying saucer-size bean bags across the floor for ease of viewing, and the guards seemed to discourage only the most outrageous abuses of bean-bag etiquette.
While so much at Mass MoCA is child friendly, the museum nonetheless created a special room called Kidspace. It has tables with art supplies, as well as its own revolving art exhibitions. We saw “It’s Rude to Stare,” a recent show by Richard Criddle, featuring a bevy of creepy figures made from wood, metal and found objects. The sculptures were inspired by Mr. Criddle’s childhood fears and stories.
Taking their cue from the exhibition, Will Fairbrother of Barrington, R.I., and his son Lucian, 6, were collaborating on a green monster cut-out. “I think contemporary art — the scale of it — is really good for kids,” said Dr. Fairbrother, an assistant professor of biology at Brown University. “It’s more accessible, and they warm up to it.”
Now on display through summer are Devorah Sperber’s pointillistic interpretations of iconic portraits like Leonardo da Vinci’s <object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="33082;419399">“Mona Lisa.”</object.title> Spools of thread stand in for small dabs of paint, and the images, which hang upside-down, appear upright only when viewed through optical devices.
Not much connects Mass MoCA and the Norman Rockwell Museum. Indeed, it was the dissimilarity of the two that made me want to combine them a single weekend. Just outside Kidspace, however, is a fascinating link, and one that is easily overlooked: a mural by Norman Rockwell’s son, Jarvis.
Covering four walls from floor to ceiling, the mural looks like the work of a compulsive doodler: an endless, intricate pencil drawing of interconnected orbs. Mr. Rockwell, who is better known for his dioramas of toy action figures, created a similar drawing in a restaurant in nearby Williamstown.
The landscape surrounding the Norman Rockwell Museum is as pastoral as Mass MoCA’s is gritty. The 36-acre property — on the outskirts of Stockbridge, where Rockwell spent his last 25 years — includes his studio, which was moved to the site. (The studio is open May through October.) Overlooking the Housatonic River, the grounds also feature sculptures by Peter Rockwell, another son.
Founded in 1969 with input from Norman and Molly Rockwell, the museum houses the world’s largest collection of Rockwell art. It also exhibits works by other prominent illustrators; on view through May 26 is “LitGraphic: the World of the Graphic Novel.”
At first, the sumptuous galleries seem to send a hush-hush message to children, a tacit warning that they are in the presence of serious art. But, of course, humor infuses so many of Rockwell’s canvases and Saturday Evening Post covers — all 323 are on view — that our children were almost taken by surprise.
Amelia’s favorite was “The Gossips,” a 1948 oil painting for a Post cover in which Rockwell shows a series of women and men passing on some scandalous tidbit of news. The gossip appears to be about Norman Rockwell himself, and in the final row of talking heads, we see Rockwell in profile, scolding the woman who started it.
Rockwell’s work was often dipped in treacle as it romanticized American life, and in the art world, he inspires both respect and contempt. A 2002 retrospective of his work at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, for instance, drew comparisons to Vermeer, as well as howls of derision.
Still, Rockwell, who died in 1978 at 84, was an American institution, and so was the Saturday Evening Post, which provided him with a singular platform, from his first cover in 1916 to his last in 1963. Before our visit, Amelia and Sawyer had heard of neither Rockwell nor the Post, and I viewed the introduction as accomplishment enough.
But Rockwell also confronted difficult subjects like race, and a few days after our visit, Amelia bounded home with a flier about an upcoming event at school. The flier had a tiny picture of a large oil we had just studied at the museum: “The Problem We All Live With,” depicting a black girl in a bright white dress, escorted by federal marshals. A tomato had been hurled near the girl, its red juices splattered against the wall.
The painting was based on the real-life experience of Ruby Bridges, one of the first black children to attend a white school in Louisiana. At the museum, the painting, which Rockwell did for Look magazine in 1964, prompted a talk with Amelia about racism and segregation. Now grown up, Ruby Bridges Hall was going to visit our daughter’s elementary school to share her story.
That, to me, seemed a nearly perfect illustration of the power of art to educate and inspire.
The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (413-662-2111; www.massmoca.org), informally called Mass MoCA, is at 87 Marshall Street in North Adams, about five miles from the intersection of Routes 2 and 7 in Williamstown. The museum is open every day, except Tuesday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. From the beginning of July to early September, hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. (Kidspace is open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.) Admission: $12.50 for adults, with discounts for children and students.
The Norman Rockwell Museum (413-298-4100; www.nrm.org) is at 9 Glendale Road (Route 183) in Stockbridge, Mass., about 30 miles southwest of North Adams. The museum is open daily. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays from November to April; weekends and holidays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. From May to October, hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission: $12.50 for adults, free for those 18 and under.
The Porches Inn (231 River Street, North Adams; 413-664-0400; www.porches.com). The weekend rate through mid-May for a room with two queen-size beds is $199 a night. A generous continental breakfast is included. There are many other affordable accommodations nearby, like the Holiday Inn Berkshires in North Adams and the 1896 House, a bed-and-breakfast in Williamstown.