It’s a short drive from anywhere in Otsego County to downtown Utica, but once you step inside the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute’s exclusive Norman Rockwell exhibit on display now, you’ll feel like you’re thousands of miles away.
Two stunning galleries of his famous Saturday Evening Post covers – all 323 of them — flank the installation of paintings and sketches covering the whole of the artist’s storied career and creating an exhibition that the Institute’s Deputy Director and Chief Curator Stephen Harrison says opens the viewer to “the breadth and depth of the entire career of this great American artist.”
“This is a perfect time to be showing these works,” Mr. Harrison said during a tour with The Freeman’s Journal / Hometown Oneonta. “In a world so full of strife, we might view these illustrations and paintings as a look at a simpler time but we also can see the work of an artist who portrayed the challenges our country faced throughout his long career.”
The exhibit – which runs through September 18, 2022 – opens chronologically with some of Mr. Rockwell’s earliest works – illustrations and paintings for Boy’s Life magazine that framed what Mr. Harrison called the artist’s “lifelong commitment to the Boy Scouts of America.”
“Rockwell was a working cartoonist and illustrator,” Mr. Harrison said. “He wasn’t so much an ‘artiste’ as he was a working artist. He worked on deadline, he worked with assignments from editors.”
“But he was so much more than that, too,” he said. “This exhibit shows the many, many layers to each of his pieces. He brought out so many details in each of his works. You can get lost in them for hours.”
Mr. Harrison spent a few moments in the tour discussing two works in particular – “New Kids in the Neighborhood” and “Mine America’s Coal.” The latter, a World War II-vintage portrait of a proud coal miner, is – like so many of the works on display – akin to a photograph filled with depth and detail. It’s a moving portrait with stunning ability to convey a deep relationship with its subject.
“This says so much about the War effort,” Mr. Harrison said of the work. “There’s determination. Sacrifice, ruggedness, hope. There’s worry in his eyes, but he’s smiling. And look – Rockwell made sure to add the small badge with two stars on his overalls. That’s the pin showing this miner had two sons in active service.”
Careful study of 1967’s “New Kids in the Neighborhood,” he offered, reveals consideration of a desegregating America, with Black children and White children standing separated but tentatively learning more about each other. One boy on each “side” holds a baseball glove.
“The uniting spirit of baseball,” Mr. Harrison said. “You know those boys will be playing catch together later, but for now, this potential relationship is something entirely new to them.”
That piece comes from the artist’s Look magazine work – the publication to which he moved after his more progressive ideals clashed with editors at the Saturday Evening Post. One piece on display at Munson-Williams-Proctor, 1963’s “Marriage Counselor,” is one that the Post refused to publish.
“It’s a commentary on domestic abuse and the hypocrisy with which it’s still portrayed today,” Mr. Harrison said. “And this was 1963.” Nearby, Mr. Rockwell’s study on the civil rights movement, “The Problem We All Live With.” A stark rendering of Ruby Bridges walking to school, surrounded by officers protecting her.
On display – more portraits, sketches, the famous World War II ‘Four Freedoms’ paintings he created after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech inspired him to contribute to the war effort. In the end, his art raised some $137 million for the United States armed forces — $2 billion by today’s standards.
The exhibition ends at an interactive zone, complete with a selfie station where visitors can recreate and pose with the child and police officer from Rockwell’s famous “The Runaway.” There’s a pop-up shop, as well.
Mr. Harrison’s choice of colors for the exhibits walls and careful spacing of the artwork on display draw the viewer in and give time and space to study, respect, enjoy, and learn from each piece.
“His work is something that engenders enormous emotion,” he said. “We’re so proud of this installation and look forward to visitors enjoying it all summer.”
It’s not a traveling show, by the way – the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute showing is through special arrangement with the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Institute Public Relations and Advertising Manager Joe Schmidt said it’s an important opportunity for all of Central New York to have easy access to the artwork.
“I love Rockwell and thought I knew a lot about him,” Mr. Schmidt said. “This exhibit blew me away with the detail and the craft. It’s magnificent.”
It is indeed, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute is in the midst of a membership drive – members enjoy free admission to special exhibitions (including the Rockwell), discounts on concerts and films, discounts at the gift shop, invitations to special events and previews, and reciprocal privileges at select museums in New York State.
Admission for the general public to the Rockwell Exhibition is $10; full-time students $5; reciprocal museum and NARM members $8. MWPAI members, SNAP/EBT cardholders, active-duty military and family, and children aged 12 and younger are admitted free of charge. The Institute’s permanent collection galleries are always free and open to all.
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute at 310 Genesee Street in Utica is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. and Sunday from Noon until 5 p.m. Closed Monday. Directions via Google Maps to the visitor parking lot are at 1207 State Street, the parking lot entrance to the museum. Visit www.mwpai.org or call (315)-797-0000 for more information.