MCLA and Berkshire museums bring energy in hard times

Imagine a parade through town with music and costumes out of science fiction and fantasy. People are dancing, lifting their arms, and they are wearing all the colors of life from new planets, shining like dragonfly wings.

It’s coming, one way or another, even in a world changed by the pandemic. Erica Wall, director of the Berkshire Cultural Resources Center, is finding new ways to move ahead. As concern has grown to slow the spread of coronavirus, public places have closed and suspended events. But creative places across the county are adapting.

Wall has brought Genevieve Gaignard, a nationally known artist from Los Angeles, to the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts for an artist residency this spring — and the residency is going on. Gaignard has been mentoring students and making new work, and she is reaching out to the community with workshops and encouragement.

She creates collages and self-portraits with a vivid sense place and character, and she and Wall are evolving plans for a celebration in June with the procession through the downtown to Mass MoCA, where Gaignard also has work on display.

They call it the Misfit Prom: Out of this world, and they are inviting anyone and everyone to “come in their best space-age, sci-fi, or otherwise otherworldly costumes for a cosmic concert and interplanetary party.” They hope to celebrate in the streets, and if not, they will bring people together on the web.

This spring, museums and arts and performance spaces are moving online. Cultural and creative places have faced abrupt disruption. Many have seen a steep drop in revenue, without warning, and they are cutting back. At the same time, they are reaching out.
They are creating new digital ways to connect.

Now, without leaving home, people in the Berkshires, and anywhere, can dance with Jacob’s Pillow, or listen in on actors talking behind the scenes with Berkshire Theatre Group. They can tell stories about art. Or make it.

And they can talk to each other, says Lisa Donovan, director of the MCLA Institute for Humanities. Hundreds of people at home, on their own, can think of themselves as a group — and think of the Berkshires as a wide creative area.

“This is such a vibrant region,” she said, “with such amazing cultural institutions doing great work.”

A group of local museums and theaters have come together to launch the Berkshire Creativity Challenge, Donovan says. They are leading activities that people can get involved with at home and then share online, as museums create new programming — IS183 Art School moves art classes online, Berkshire Museum creates podcasts and discoveries on its new Berkshire Museum @ Home page, the Norman Rockwell Museum moves its Finding Home exhibit to the web and runs virtual sketch clubs, and the Clark Art Institute explroes its collections in talks with the curators.

Donovan’s creative challenge has grown from the Berkshire Creative Assets Network, Donovan says, a conversation with more than 50 players in the local creative economy.

They are reaching out to people alone at home, she says, to people who want to feel creative, to parents and children out of school. And the new challenge has grown naturally from the institute’s work from the beginning, to bring the creative energy of the Berkshires to students of all ages and people who live year round, so that they will feel that all of these creative places belong to them.

At Hancock Shaker Village, nanny goats are waiting for their kids to be born. Their annual celebration of baby animals will begin later in the season, says director of communications Amanda Powers, but the four-legged mothers come to the farm on the village to have their babies, and the new calves and chicks, lambs and piglets come when they come. She will share stories and photos.

In online museums across the county, visitors can tour through a room full of bright abstract paintings or a garden of tulips and daffodils in bloom.

“We’re turning more and more to the web and social media,” says Vicki Saltzman, director of communications at the Clark Art Institute. “We are trying to offer comfort and inspiration for our followers. There’s a calming effect in the beauty of art.”

Visitors can take a digital tour of the galleries at the Williams College Museum of Art or the spring flowers at Berkshire Botanical Garden and find color in the wide bright swathes of Sol LeWitt’s murals at Mass MoCA.

At MCLA, Gaignard works with collage and self-portraits. She creates scenes with her own body, with lighting and vintage clothing, and with vivid settings. She stands on a city street with a mural of forceful leaders — King Tutankhamen and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — speaking to a crowd or looking the camera in the eye.

She came to Massachusetts in early March, fresh from major shows at the Frieze Festival in L.A. and the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara, and she came first to staying in Wendell, where she lived before she moved West, until she can safely come to North Adams.

She and Wall imagine the work she can create in North Adams, with its murals and old brick and mountains.

“My themes are not going to change,” she says, “race and identity, class and femininity. But what does that look like when we’re all scared, and we’re all masked? That’s what’s spinning in my mind right now.”

She is creating new work that will open through MCLA’s Gallery 51 in early June, either physically or digitally, and she is mentoring MCLA senior art majors as they learn how to mount their final senior art exhibit on the web. Through this spring, she will reach out virtually through MCLA’s Gallery 51.

Wall is gathering artists now across the country and beyond in a new new online G51 Virtual Artist Series, artist talks and studio tours live on Zoom with local, regional, national, and international artists. Los Angeles artist Gerald Euhon Sheffield II spoke on the last weekend in May about his work, including on a series of paintings and drawings reflecting on the intersections of Black life and Central Asian Muslim society, adnd his experiences living abroad in Uzbekistan on a Fulbright Grant in 2019.

Gladys Kalichini, coming up on June 13, is widely known for her paintings, digital work and installations; originally from Lusaka, Zambia, she has been a part of many projects with SARChI: Geopolitics and the Arts of Africa, and she exhibits her work around the world.

Multidisciplinary artist Todd Elliott will tune in on June 27, from in Portland, Ore., where he teaches at at the Pacific Northwest School of Art and explores shapes and forms used in architectural motifs, transpiration design, typography and more.

Around Wall and Gaignard, artists and art museums are exploring new and past work, from Common Folk to Chesterwood.

The Norman Rockwell Museum is planning a flow of workshops, talks and programs online, says Rich Bradway, director of digital learning and engagement.

“We are asking people what they want to see and do,” he says.

And the museum is inviting people to get involved.

They can learn to draw with Berkshire artist Patrick O’Donnell in a daily sketch club, or listen to conversations with with contemporary illustrators. They can wander through new online exhibits, like New York artist Burton Silverman, who painted daily events in the Freedom movement in the 1960s, Bradway says, when he drew scenes like the bus boycott in Montgomery.

And at the Rockwell people can listen to stories, oral histories, as people who have come to the Berkshires from countries around the world talk about their lives.

The museum has collected these stories and offered them as part of their ongoing show, and they are getting permissions to bring that show online too — Finding Home.

This story first ran in the May 2020 issue of Berkshire Magazine — my thanks to Anastasia Stanmeyer. You can also find virtual content on the web and on social media from these Berkshire museums and creative places: Berkshire Museum, Berkshire Pulse, Flying Cloud Institute, The Mount, Naumkeag, Tanglewood / Boston Symphony Orchestra, WordxWord …

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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