Community: 20 Questions for Laurie Norton Moffat
Photo: Sue Geller
Laurie Norton Moffatt, champion of the artwork and legacy of Norman Rockwell, spearheaded the transition of the Norman Rockwell Museum from a local house museum to an internationally recognized cultural institution dedicated not only to the work of the iconic American illustrator but also to a scholarly approach to his field – past and present – through the establishment of the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies. Her community-building efforts extend far beyond the Museum’s Robert A.M. Stern-designed walls; Moffat thinks and acts globally and locally. In her 35 years at the Museum, Moffatt has toiled tirelessly to share Rockwell’s work and vision (especially The Four Freedoms) around the world; at home she supports local artists both personally — by collecting their work — and institutionally, as co-founder of the Berkshire Creative Economy Council. On the heels of the unmasking of Heroes and Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross, and on the eve of the opening of Home for the Holidays, editor-at-large Bess Hochstein put the Rural Intelligence 20 Questions to Norman Rockwell Museum director and CEO Laurie Norton Moffat.
1. Where do you go when you crave solitude?
I love solitude and need it regularly. My yoga mat and swimming give me time with myself. Sometimes I slip away to a small private island, but if I told you where, it would not be private anymore.
2. Where do you go when you crave buzz?
I don’t often crave buzz – my work gives me endless stimulation – but when I can get away, a weekend in Paris is my heart space. I love to travel; new places, new countries and cultures stimulate new ideas and enrich me. I love the regionalism of our country; our collection has taken me to most corners of our land and abroad as well. Norman Rockwell celebrated the commonplace, saying, “Commonplaces are never tiresome. It is we who become tired when we cease to be curious or appreciative…[we] find that it is not a new scene which is needed, but a new viewpoint.” Travel invites that new viewpoint and then it is always so nice to come home to the Berkshires.
3. What’s your favorite local library and/or bookstore?
The Bookloft, Great Barrington. Photo: Fiona Breslin
I’m a huge fan of our independent bookstores – The Bookstore in Lenox and The Bookloft in Great Barrington have wonderful selections. The Stockbridge Library is a gem and I wish had more time to linger there.
4. What’s your favorite place for bargain hunting?
The woods and beach. Pine cones, beach rocks, sea shells and sea glass fill my house.
5. What do you buy for yourself when you need a treat and want to splurge, and what’s your cheap thrill?
I love to collect art – especially from Berkshire artists. I’m afraid I don’t have enough wall or display space for this passion. I can’t imagine living in a community without artists. Our lives are so much richer for being surrounded by this creativity and we should all make it a priority to actively support them.
Sencha shipped from Japan is my small daily indulgence.
6. Where do you shop for clothes?
I love artist-made accessories, especially selected from museum stores around the country, to accent my basic black palette. Each piece holds a memory of an exhibition we’ve hosted or a place I’ve visited.
7. What local performance venues do you attend?
I love them all – but work and travel preclude an active performance schedule.
8. What’s your favorite way to spend a Sunday morning?
On my yoga mat.
9. Who are your local heroes?
There are so many local heroes working quietly out of the public arena providing services to our community for whom I hold immense admiration – farmers, land preservationists, literacy volunteers, immigrant workers and volunteers; people providing access to health care, hospice volunteers; youth mentors, teachers and coaches; artists who add vibrancy to our community – I think the Berkshires are exceptional in the amount and quality of volunteer work which abounds to help our citizens. This is borne out in the Berkshires having the highest per capita non-profit organizations over any other state in the nation. We are a community of quiet do-gooders.
My husband believes our purpose on this planet is to help others and I agree with him. There are so many needs in this community, masked by the visitor and second-home economy and the vibrancy of the cultural and recreational scene. Fortunately, our community, both individuals and businesses, have a high awareness of the responsibility to give back and help others.
10. What’s your favorite one-hour drive from your home?
The top of Mount Greylock.
11. Where’s your favorite place for breakfast?
I was very sad when Caffé Pomo d’Oro in West Stockbridge closed, but the Red Lion Inn is my home-away-from-home for breakfast. I’m so at home there that sometimes I forget to pay my bill, but they know where to find me.
12. What’s your favorite hardware store, and why?
Photo: Fiona Breslin
That would have to be Baldwin’s in West Stockbridge, which has been continuously operated by my husband’s extended family for five generations. But I love the hand tool selections in Foster’s Hardware in Great Barrington. They remind me of my father’s workbench.
13. Whom do you trust to recommend wines?
Stockbridge’s Nejaimes family will always guide you to a great find.
14. What three things do you always do with out of town guests?
Touring the Museum with astronaut Stephanie Wilson.
A visit to the latest exhibition at Norman Rockwell Museum, lunch in one of Lenox’s fabulous eateries followed by a visit to an art gallery.
15. What newspapers, blogs or websites do you read every day?
I head to online media in the morning and peruse numerous art blogs, regional online news, international news, New York Times, Berkshire Eagle, and the art world articles a young friend sends regularly to my Facebook mailbox. I keep an e-mail account just for e-news and online blogs and reading in an attempt not to clutter my inbox. But my favorite morning meditation is a daily gratitude that arrives from Gratefulness.org and reminds me to appreciate life’s small moments, which are really the greatest gifts.
16. What was your first job?
I taught arts and crafts and swimming to toddlers at the then Girls Club in Pittsfield when I was 14. Velma Leftkowitz and Erica Winn, Betty Papirio and June Rubin were my first bosses and I learned so much from them. There I developed my love of volunteerism and the not-for-profit sector.
17. It seems inconceivable that you have been with Norman Rockwell Museum for 35 years? How did your career at NRM begin?
It began with a part-time job during the summer following my junior year at Williams College while pursuing my art history degree from Connecticut College. I observed visitors deeply moved by Rockwell’s art and this reaction contrasted with the cynical out-of-favor view of Rockwell then prevalent with my art history professors and the art world. It galvanized me and gave me an appreciation for the power of art as a mass communication medium. Plus, Rockwell was an outstanding painter and storyteller; so few people had ever seen his original oil paintings to appreciate how gorgeously painted they are. His friendship with the citizens of Stockbridge was legendary and very personal. Many of the people involved early on with the Museum like Lila Berle and Jane Fitzpatrick became my mentors and life-long friends. It was a unique time.
18. You’re one of the few leaders of a major Berkshire cultural organization who was born here. What kind of difference does that make?
It’s a myth. I’m not a native. I was not born in the Berkshires. I was an army baby, born overseas during my father’s military service. My family moved to the Berkshires from metro-New York when I was a child. My father worked in insurance at the time. For years we did the reverse commute on weekends to visit grandparents and family. My upbringing was shaped equally by rural and urban environments. My mother was a city girl and my father loved the outdoors. Both milieus seemed perfectly married in my family’s life. I feel blessed to have had a Berkshire upbringing and can’t imagine what my life might have been had it not been inspired by the natural beauty of our region. The Berkshires are my soul space.
I do think that living at different times during my life in Pittsfield, Lenox, Williamstown, and now Stockbridge, has given me an appreciation for the connectedness of the entire county – its mountains and lakes, artists and farmers, the connectivity of the cultural scene and how important it is for us to preserve the natural environment of our unique region. I’m a huge proponent for collaboration and working together – Berkshire Creative and 1Berkshire were born out of the spirit that together we can tell a more cohesive story and maybe see the Berkshires as a united region, despite the fierce independence of its two major cities, 30 towns, and 13 school districts, each with different cultures, economies, and unique historical assets. New England towns are fiercely independent. But the mountain ridges, rivers, lakes, and wildlife corridors know no government borders. We must work to preserve these resources and chart growth with modern communication tools and clean industry that connect us in contemporary ways.
19. You’ve traveled around the world in your role as director/CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum. What was the most surprising place you’ve visited on behalf of the Museum, and why?
The most unexpected place I traveled for the Museum was to Ethiopia in January of 2011 at the invitation of Ambassador Donald Booth to bring the concepts of the Four Freedoms to Ethiopian artists and invite a juried art competition and exhibition of Ethiopian interpretations of Freedom. It was a privilege to visit a region of the world with one of the oldest civilizations where various religions have peacefully coexisted for millenia. I was following in Norman Rockwell’s footsteps, as he visited Ethiopia in 1961 to document the work of the Peace Corps around the world. I met an artist, now in his 80s (above), who had met Norman Rockwell during his earlier visit. It is a beautiful ancient culture that is the modern seat of the Union of African Nations.
20. Last year, you met with President Barack Obama at the White House while Rockwell’s iconic 1963 painting, “The Problem We All Live With,” was on display there. What impression of the President did you take away from that visit?
I had the sense of being in the presence of great intelligence, compassion, and wisdom. I held the vivid alertness of witnessing a moment of personal history between generations. The President focused his attention on Ruby Bridges and her courageous mother who made the decision to place her daughter in this school and in the national spotlight of the angry mobs. The President reflected on whether he would have had the courage to do the same with his daughters and commented that he would not have been in office had Ruby and many others taken their courageous step. She replied that we all stand on the shoulders of those who come before us.
Neil Armstrong was famously quoted when he stepped on the moon, “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” I felt I was witness to such a moment.
Above: Official White House photo by Pete Souza. All rights reserved. Left to right: Norman Rockwell Museum President Anne Morgan, President Barack Obama, Ruby Bridges, and Laurie Norton Moffatt view Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” hanging in a West Wing hallway near the Oval Office, July 15, 2011. Bridges inspired Rockwell’s illustration, and Morgan was an original Rockwell model.