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In the Berkshires, museums are a salve for the socially distanced soul

Artist Blane De St. Croix put the final touches on "How to Move a Landscape" at Mass MoCA.
Artist Blane De St. Croix put the final touches on "How to Move a Landscape" at Mass MoCA.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

NORTH ADAMS — For me, it started in the parking lot at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a bleak expanse of asphalt left more or less empty these many months. There I saw signs, finally, of life, though not a life unchanged. A masked museum worker painted arrows, six feet apart. A great big tent stretched over a rainbow of well-spaced picnic tables to accommodate socially distant revelry at the campus’s barbecue hut. It sent a message: All those things you love? They can be done. Just not like before.

It’s been a long haul for everyone. Months of shutdowns, layoffs, furloughs and, maybe worst of all, no sense of when, or even if, it all would end. We knew coming back would be a process of relentless incrementalism, no switch as easily flipped back on as off. But you have to start somewhere, and in Massachusetts, that somewhere is here, in the Berkshires, with one of the biggest footprints in the museum universe.


When Governor Charlie Baker announced at the end of June that museums outside the Boston orbit could open again on July 6, the Berkshires presented a united front. Mass MoCA, Clark Art Institute, and Norman Rockwell Museum pinned the weekend of July 11 on the calendar more or less together. (Their reopening announcement was accompanied by a hilarious Wild Bunch-style photo of the museum’s three masked directors swaggering, gunslinger-like, over a rolling meadow.)

Mass MoCA being Mass MoCA, there’s no soft reopening here. Before the pandemic, the museum had Blane De St. Croix’s “How to Move a Landscape” on the books. In typical Mass MoCA fashion, it’s big. Very, very big. Just past the foyer, a thick, four-foot-high wall that looks exhumed from the earth itself cleaves the corridor in two, topped by a toy-train size model of the border fence between the United States and Mexico — political time versus geological time, with no question of what prevails. In the soaring gallery just beyond, a huge slab of synthetic permafrost — like half-a-football-field huge — is tilted on a precarious angle and riven with gaps that made me think of open sores. The visual presentation suggested as much — odd shaped and dangling bits, devolving before your eyes. De St. Croix, who has traveled with climate scientists to both poles, knows first-hand that the change is that immediate, visible, and dramatic. What he’s brought here, at massive scale, is still just snapshot of a scene so vast and nightmarish it defies imagination. Worse, we won’t have to imagine it — it’s already here, in our warming world and rising seas, getting hotter and higher day by day.


An installation view of Blane De St. Croix's "How to Move a Landscape."
An installation view of Blane De St. Croix's "How to Move a Landscape."Kaelan Burkett

Is it respite to be distracted from one global crisis to another? Maybe not, but my whirlwind one-day tour to the Berkshires this week put me back in the world with the snap-to I needed. The pandemic has revealed so much wrong, right in front of our noses — crucial equity issues, from health to housing to work to a deep rot at the core of our militarized police force — it’s been hard to see beyond that near horizon. “How to Move a Landscape” is the proverbial bigger issue — that no problem gets solved without a livable planet on which to solve it. Not an uplifting message, no. We have a lot of work to do. Maybe, with energy generated by social movements the pandemic brought to the fore, we’ll have the will to do it.


Mass MoCA has always dealt in the urgently topical, which is part of what makes me a fellow traveler. (Other new shows, “Kissing Through a Curtain,” loosely about barriers of language, culture, and border, and Crow artist Wendy Red Star’s “Apsáalooke: Children of the Large-Beaked Bird,” about white settler representations of Indigenous people, are also right on brand.) But now there’s something far more immediate, far more urgent, and that’s basic health and safety as doors crack open for the first time in months.

In the museum’s expansive foyer, most everything had been cleared out, explained director Joe Thompson from behind his mask. “Normally, we’d want people to gather here, to hang out,” Thompson said. “Now this is more like a runway — we want to get them in and off into the galleries as quickly as we can.”

Thompson and the museum’s deputy director, Tracy Moore, who was the architect of the reopening plan, squired me through the big open spaces, waiting to be filled, but not too much. Mass MoCA has a built-in advantage of interior acreage: Even its busiest days pre-pandemic didn’t approach the capacity they’re aiming for now, per state guidelines. Even so, to keep the runway flowing, they’ll time admissions to 75 people per hour.

On top of what’s now standard fare, at grocery stores and museums alike — masks, dots on the floor to remind people of distancing, sanitizer at regular intervals — Mass MoCA has some other structural advantages. As we walked through the museum’s building five, an arena-size double-height space currently occupied by Ledelle Moe’s monumental “When,” Thompson mentioned the banks of windows that let sunlight stream inside. For shows without conservation concerns — Moe’s work is concrete — the museum would crack open dozens of those windows to allow for outdoor airflow, in keeping with current research on reducing transmission.


Amid Moe’s toppled monuments, imbued with fresh urgency given the times, we saw returning staff, all in masks (many of whom had been laid off in the spring) getting pandemic training from a team leader. Thompson pointed to the loading dock in the space, which sits 15 or so feet above the courtyard usually jam-packed with concerts and performances this time of year. Live shows are the lifeblood of Mass MoCA, generating revenue and buzz. On July 18, the loading dock will be an elevated stage for Treya Lam, playing to a much smaller crowd, with each family group confined to a box to ensure proper distancing. The courtyard used to hold 4,000. It’s now capped at 100.

So, it’s different. But it’s something, and I don’t hesitate to say it’s something good. There’s nothing much to feel good about with an advancing pandemic, but the ingenuity required in reviving the best parts of our world is nothing less than inspiring. I left Mass MoCA on my way down the road to the Clark Art Institute feeling buoyed — that this can work.


At the Clark, I was met by director Olivier Meslay, sporting a mask printed with the Clark’s crest: A profile of a horse. The Clark, with its acres of alpine meadows and hiking trails, has kept its outdoor spaces open throughout; communications director Vicki Saltzman said the trails saw twice as much action over the lockdown. In the height of summer, the Clark’s courtyard is as inspiring as any artwork. Adirondack chairs line the reflecting pool, with the grassy hills arching off toward the horizon.

A view of the Clark Art Institute's grounds. Analia Saban’s “Teaching a Cow How to Draw” split-rail cedar fence is in the foreground.
A view of the Clark Art Institute's grounds. Analia Saban’s “Teaching a Cow How to Draw” split-rail cedar fence is in the foreground.Clark Art Institute/T. Clark

Inside, Meslay took me through a pair of new shows: An exhibition of 19th century European drawings replete with big names: Puvis de Chavannes, Watteau, Degas, Morisot; and a contemporary survey of the work of German-Iraqi artist Lin May Saeed. Things got really exciting, though, when we hopped in a golf cart and mounted a steep gravel path to the top of the Clark’s grounds, where Kelly Akashi, one of the artists featured in “Ground/work,” a much-delayed outdoor sculpture exhibition, was still waiting to install her work. (The pandemic has, among other things, severely stalled much of the art world, from fabrication to shipping to material orders.) Whatever’s going on inside — and it’s a lot; the Saeed show is one of the freshest things I’ve seen in ages — the Clark’s sprawling grounds are a salve for even the worst pandemic anxieties: Fresh air and social distance by the literal acre, and art in the fields to boot.

Down the road in Stockbridge, I found Stephanie Plunkett, deputy director and chief curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum, putting final touches on three new shows. One offers a deep dive into Rockwell’s 1965 painting “Murder in Mississippi,” on the killing of three civil rights activists by Ku Klux Klansmen; Rose O’Neill, the maverick turn-of-the-20th-century illustrator who invented the Kewpie doll; and cartoonist and children’s book author Liza Donnelly’s “Comic Relief,” which isn’t quite the escapist respite the title suggests.

Donnelly, a regular with the New Yorker, offers work ripe for the moment — on feminism, race, politics, and, in testament to the immediacy of her medium, the Black Lives Matter protests that began sweeping the nation last month. After months on lockdown, “Comic Relief” felt like stepping into the extreme present, a museum that hadn’t missed a beat.

It was a day like none I’ve had recently, or ever — three days, really, all jammed into one. It left me spent, overloaded, and loving every minute. After months of agonizing over “when,” I was ready for as much “now” as I could get. There was a lot. There’s more to come. Please: Bring it on.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.