Such a cultureconcentration would get lost in the bustle of a big city. Against a backdrop of abrupt hills, fields, orchards, and classic old New England towns, though, the quality of the art found in campus museums makes the Five College Area one of Massachusetts' better-kept secrets. "For a long time, college museums saw their mission as serving only their students," said Suzannah Fabing, director of the Smith College Museum of Art. "That's changed."
Judging from Smith's newly renamed Brown Fine Arts Center, which reopens next Sunday, the change is a dramatic one. A three-year, $35 million remake has made the museum not only substantially larger, but from the doors that face the street to the artfully themed restrooms far more visitor friendly. Admission to this world-class collection, incidentally, is free.
That also goes for the superb collection in the newly renovated and expanded Mount Holyoke College Art Museum and the equally outstanding art at the recently redone Mead Art Museum on the Amherst College campus. Also nearby is the independently financed Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, which opened in November next to Hampshire College and displays the work of internationally acclaimed illustrators.
The five colleges, within a dozen miles of one another in this beautifully scenic, deceptively sleepy-looking stretch of the Connecticut River Valley, include one institution that's not a college at all: the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Nonetheless, Five College Area is the popular name for this distinctive, magical mix of 25,000 undergraduates, more than 5,000 graduate students, and some 2,000 faculty members plus graduates who stay around and countless artists and craftspeople, musicians, and writers drawn by the physical and cultural landscape.
On a recent Saturday, Northampton's mile-long Main Street funneled a spring tide of exuberant locals in tweeds and turbans, coveralls and long gowns. Old and young poured down the street, eddying in and out of shops and cafes, restaurants and galleries.
Smith, the nation's largest women's college, is just above and beyond Main Street. Its Brown Fine Arts Center commands views of downtown on one side and of tranquil Seelye Lawn, the leafy heart of the campus, on the other.
Since the 1870s, Smith's art collecting has focused on contemporary American and modern European works. Curator Jere Abbott, who had served on the founding staff of New York's Museum of Modern Art, was instrumental in acquiring works like Picasso's cubist "Table, Guitar, and Bottle" (1919).
"When it was hung in 1932, everyone in Northampton thought he was crazy," Fabing said of Abbott. The new venue for "Table" along with choice paintings by Cezanne, Seurat, Winslow Homer, Rockwell Kent, Charles Sheeler, Camille Pissarro, Thomas Eakins, Eastman Johnson, and many others is a skylighted gallery that fills the museum's new third floor, also the setting for sculpture by Auguste Rodin, Alberto Giacometti, and Alexander Calder.
During the museum's long closure, staff have taken time to ponder more than the placement of art. Some basic needs of visitors seating and restrooms have been addressed with unusual care and results. For the former, visitors are greeted in the new foyer by two arcs of thick glass lightly etched with concentric circles in a swirling design, topped with a massive glass slab. The work of Jason Berg of neighboring Florence is one of 11 memorable benches, each by a different artist, scattered throughout the museum.
The new restrooms blur boundaries between form and function, personal and public spaces. Cambridge-based Ellen Driscoll, whose work includes the glass murals in New York's Grand Central Station, has washed the women's restrooms in shades of blue. Images of women from the museum collection here a graceful Diana, there a stern matron float amid semi-organic shapes. Meanwhile, Smith alumna Sandy Skoglund, known for large-scale surrealistic installations, has has walled the men's room in minutely detailed tiles depicting watery creation myths and dreams.
There is, of course, more to the museum: the European collection on the second floor, the new print room housing some 8,000 works on paper, and the newly brightened galleries on the lower level. First-floor galleries feature diminutive, exquisitely dressed mannequins, plus rich fabrics and a range of paintings illustrating "Silk in New England Society, 1730-1930" (through June 15).
In the 19th century, Northampton itself was an important silk-producing center. Across the river, South Hadley residents will tell you that while the silk mills were in Northampton, the mill owners opted to live in their idyllic village, home since 1837 to Mount Holyoke College.
The country's oldest women's college, Mount Holyoke has also been collecting art since the 1870s and, like Smith, its 1970s-era museum building has recently undergone a transformation, with new lighting and color and three new galleries for special exhibits.
While Smith was focusing on the 19th and 20th centuries, Mount Holyoke was steadily acquiring Pompeian frescoes, medieval European statuary, and Japanese screens, along with the more predictable 19th-century landscapes by Albert Bierstadt and George Inness, said museum director Marianne Doezema.
"One beauty of the museums in this area," Doezema says, "is the way the collections complement each other."
Mount Holyoke's art museum is set beside a formal garden, across from a brook, deep in the 800-acre campus, which was designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted. Highlights of the permanent collection include an exquisite white marble head of the empress Faustina, William Glackens's muted "Skaters in Central Park," and "Annie Lavelle," a vivid portrait by Robert Henri. The current exhibit, "A Visual Feast: Promised Gifts and Recent Acquisitions" (through July 20), features three remarkable paintings by Milton Avery as well as three by Hans Hofmann.
At Amherst College, the art museum was revamped two years ago. A short walk from the Amherst town common, the museum is hidden in a far corner of the campus. Its permanent collection includes Henri's stunning "Salome" and Claude Monet's "Morning on the Seine," and its rooms include the unexpectedly lavish, richly paneled, 1611 vintage Rotherwas Room, originally part of an English Hall and now a backdrop for portraits, furniture, and silver. Special exhibits include contemporary art and provocative photography.
Set amid apple orchards in a different part of Amherst, the new Carle Museum is a delight to visit with or without children. Selections from works by some of the world's leading illustrators are hung at child's-eye level, with benches scaled to match. Japanese master Mitsumasa Anno is featured through June 29, along with striking Children's Book Week posters and selections from Carle's most recent books.
Facilities include an extensive library of children's books, a family-friendly cafe, a museum store, and a hands-on painting room in which everyone is invited to create.
Carle, whose "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" has been translated into 30 languages, uses hand-painted tissue papers that he cuts and layers to form his distinctive images. While Carle contributed a founding gift, the $15 million museum has also been financed by publishers Penguin, Putnam, and Harper Collins, among many others. Along with the neighboring National Yiddish Book Center, completed in 1997, it is viewed by Hampshire College President Greg Prince as part of an evolving "cultural village."
Such pockets of culture are just one attraction of the Five College Area, which is at its most inviting in the coming weeks. Orchards bloom, asparagus ripens in the fields, and lodging places and restaurants are unclogged with the exception of graduation weekends May 17 and 25. Galleries, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, bookshops, and coffeehouses abound, as do bike paths and hiking trails, swimming holes, and boat launches.
On such a relaxed landscape lies the chance to savor world-class art. And that is the biggest part of the area's secret.