I Publius: Great work at the Rockwell Museum

The Rockwell’s Laurie Norton Moffatt is a genius. She’ll hate this column because she prefers to operate under the radar, unlike so many others who crave publicity.

Just read the stuff that the Norman Rockwell Museum puts out. You have to look long and hard to find Laurie’s name. This is a woman who doesn’t take unnecessary chances. She is creative, but she doesn’t look for trouble.

She is a great people manager and gives credit to everyone around her. She hires smart staff and gives them the opportunity to do their collective and individual things and when they disappoint, they are gone. I’ve seen it happen.

The woman is as tough as she is beautiful. She has a brilliant mind and she’s always thinking. I’ve never seen her flustered. In some ways, she reminds me of national hero “Sully” Sullenberger, who himself could have been a creation of Norman Rockwell.

The woman is grace under pressure. Whether it is the traveling exhibits that continue to drive the price of Rockwells through the roof or the incredibly interesting exhibits like the current “Artists in Their Studios” or the launching of the first national research institute dedicated to illustration art or the reopening of Norman Rockwell’s studio for all to see, it just never stops.

Of course, she doesn’t do it all herself. The incredible Stephanie Plunkett, for example, is as good a deputy as one can find. Her work on “Artists in Their Studios” is phenomenal. We get to see some of the most important artists in history in situ as they make their art. Plunkett is as nice as she is competent. She is the kind of person you just like. I don’t know of anyone who feels differently about her. When she spoke the other night at the museum, we were hanging on her every word.

This is the 40th anniversary of the Rockwell Museum, from its inception in Stockbridge.

In addition to all the work around that celebration that she has to do, Laurie has the major responsibility of working with a dedicated board of directors as well as tracing where the surviving Rockwells are. These paintings are coveted around the world. In too many cases, we don’t even know who has them.

One of the largest collectors in the world is Ross Perot, who just sold off a load of his Rockwells. With some of these paintings worth upward of $25 million, you had better believe that some afficionados of Americana, like certain Arab potentates, probably have them hanging outside what used to be called their harems. Once you know where they are, you can then develop strategies for getting them for the museum.

Of course, Rockwell can be recognized as a great American artist or he can fall victim to the stupid art critics who used to dismiss him as a simple illustrator. To me, Rockwell produced great art with incredible social relevance.

But let’s just say that the phonies eventually get their way, and Rockwell is forgotten, and his work depreciates (which I don’t think will happen).

I certainly believe that the launch of the new Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies is genius on Moffatt’s part. Now, in addition to being the go-to location for all things Rockwell, the museum will become the first research center institute specializing in the field of illustration art, bringing scholars together to study not only Rockwell, but all of the illustrators who have had such a profound impact on the American experience. This has been a long time coming. The museum has been exhibiting other illustration art for years but now, scholars of all stripes will be attracted to the Stockbridge facility.

In order to actualize this, Rockwell will be looking for money to support the institute. Like Tanglewood, Chesterwood and Jacob’s Pillow, the Rockwell is a part of what makes our Berkshires so special. If anyone has any money left, no place is more worthy than the Rockwell for big dollar — or even little dollar — donations. They are already making great progress, having raised $18 million of the $25 million they need to move forward.

Genius comes in many forms. There are maestros, teachers, sculptors, and artists. They all bring us something unique. Laurie Norton Moffatt is one of those people. There was a time I thought we might lose her to the Smithsonian or the Guggenheim, but now I think we may just have her until that time in the far distant future when she retires.

For that, I give thanks.

Originally Published in the Berkshire Eagle, 2/14/09

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