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Drawing Crowds

Norman Rockwell Museum Introduces the Art of Illustration to a New World
Norman Rockwell's Studio

Norman Rockwell’s studio on the Norman Rockwell Museum grounds.

The images are painstakingly rendered portraits of iconic moments: two teenagers at a soda fountain. A family gathered for a holiday meal. A soldier, returning from war.

By documenting life, Norman Rockwell created a collection of work that remains vital today. And through the work at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, the legendary illustrator’s iconic images are reaching a greater number of people than ever before.

The museum, founded in 1969, serves to showcase the illustrations of one of the nation’s most recognizable and prolific artists. It has plenty to draw from; the Norman Rockwell personal collection is just one part of a massive store of paintings, reproductions, and other artifacts, and includes 367 pieces alone.

Through a comprehensive suite of programs, ranging from traveling exhibitions to several types of educational initiatives, the museum’s collections are living on in myriad ways, as Rockwell’s art enters a new, digital age.

But in addition, there’s more going on at the Norman Rockwell Museum than exhibits of its namesake’s work, and that is creating an even greater presence for the hidden museum, being felt across the country.

Laurie Norton Moffatt, director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, said the collection is one that is steeped in history on both general and artistic levels, and therefore it resonates within a large, diverse audience.

“These are pieces of artwork that also documented historic events, values, and moments that are timeless,” she said. “It’s a wonderful collection to work with.”

The museum’s challenge of late, according to Norton Moffatt, has been to use new technology to deliver Rockwell’s art to new audiences, as well as use his importance in the medium of art and illustration to move the entire discipline forward.

“Rockwell painted for 70 years and came of age when magazine publishing was booming, and his talents and industry capability made for a great mix. It is our mission is to present this broad form of illustration,” she said. “There are a lot of exciting new programs happening here that are aimed at preserving the centuries, and keeping artists’ work relevant and tied to the times.”

Have Art, Will Travel

For instance, the traveling exhibits the museum develops and maintains have become a staple of the Rockwell Museum’s repertoire. The initiative includes exhibits of varying size, often designed to be accessible to small or medium-sized museums, and move around the country for an extended period of time.

This year, there are more than 10 NRM exhibitions in circulation. Norton Moffatt said the demand for Rockwell artwork is high in the U.S., and the traveling exhibit model allows many people to see original pieces of his work in various venues, rather than copies — even those as famous as Rockwell’s many Saturday Evening Post covers.

“This is how we reach new audiences,” she said. “Upwards of one million people see these exhibitions, and most are illustration shows.”

There is a major Rockwell exhibit traveling now, called American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell, featuring 41 original oil paintings. Norton Moffatt said the exhibit will return to Stockbridge this autumn, but until then will allow thousands of viewers to see Rockwell’s work up close and in full color.

“It’s a big undertaking; we have a lot of staff overseeing the movement of art across the country,” she said, adding that the impetus behind staging such an extensive collection for traveling exhibits stems from Rockwell’s sheer popularity as a contemporary American artist.

“Rockwell is the favorite illustrator of this country, and in turn, he was influenced by other great American illustrators including Andrew Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish. He continues that tradition for new illustrators who are influenced by him, and as such, illustration art is important to us in general.”

To that end, it’s not just Rockwell who appears in NRM exhibits, but a number of illustrators working in various media. Another traveling show, titled Picturing Health, features a collection of advertising marquees designed for use by the Pfizer corp., using some of the famous ‘doctor and patient’ Rockwell paintings. The show also includes the work of 15 additional artists, however, who use various media to portray issues that are relevant to contemporary health care. That exhibit is now traveling in the U.S., and will make a stop at the Atlanta Center for Disease Control.

At the Stockbridge museum, that focus on illustration is also prominent. LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel opened at the museum last month, and represents a move toward showcasing the new illustrators — graphic novelists — who create the more mature, developed version of comic books.

“We’re so excited about this exhibition,” said Norton Moffatt. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the most indepth treatment of the art of the graphic novel in any museum.”

The show includes the work of 20 artists and includes both new and recognizable works such as Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, a Holocaust memoir rendered with both words and pictures by Art Spiegelman.

“This is a field that is growing by leaps and bounds, which requires the talents of both an artist and a storyteller. It is an art form with a long tradition, but that is experiencing a real renaissance right now, and appealing to people in their teens and twenties, who are very visual,” Norton Moffatt said. “It covers a wide variety of topics, from the funny to the fantastical — there are a lot of modes of expression, and we’re seeing tremendous interest in our exhibition in the blogosphere.”

The New Media

That virtual attention is both the cause and effect of the museum’s concerted effort recently to move the Rockwell collection and mission into the digital age.

Norton Moffatt said the museum will unveil what is called ‘Project Norman’ in 2009, digitizing not just the collection but also Rockwell’s archives, which include sketches, art ephemera tear sheets, photos, personal and professional correspondence, audio recordings, and other effects from Rockwell’s studio, which is also part of the museum’s grounds.

“All of our materials are being digitized, and that has received tremendous support,” she said of the museum’s fundraising efforts. “We have been very successful in gaining support, and that has been the result of continued dialogue with patrons. It’s also an important testament to Rockwell and how many people believe in his collections.”

The museum has several new educational programs that are also rooted in visual and interactive learning. NRM already reaches more than 10,000 students a year through onsite programs, and is now using emerging technology to take its mission further.

“We’re working to make online programs more interactive,” Norton Moffatt said. “This is a new area for many museums, but we feel we are extremely well-suited. As an illustrator, Rockwell’s work was intended for reproduction.”

And in another vein, NRM is also launching the Rockwell Scholars initiative, which has been designed to better prepare high-level academics for technology’s effect on the art world. The program is expected to begin in 2009 along with Project Norman.

“The Rockwell Scholars are people who are working in visual studies; graduate students, PhD candidates, curators, and others,” said Norton Moffatt. “These are the people who are shaping culture and doing scholarly work in the field of American illustration.”

Life Imitating Art

A number of these programs are funded through foundation grants small and large, such as those provided by the National Endowment for the Arts. The remainder of funding comes from memberships and admissions and program fees, as well as corporate sponsorships, which can be applied to exhibits in the Stockbridge museum, traveling shows, and programs for children, adults, and educators.

“In an ideal world one always hopes for major sponsorships,” Norton Moffatt said. “We depend on philanthropy for a third of our budget, and we have a full national educational curriculum that sponsorship makes possible. We have some wonderful supporters, who believe in the importance of our mission.”

That, she said, speaks to that vitality of Rockwell’s art that keeps it moving forward.

“It’s an extremely vital collection, and one that keeps on living,” she said. “We work to keep it visible, to give it a longer life. It’s wonderful to have it live on.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]