Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 21, 2019

Guiding Your Way Through Berkshire Arts

by Shera Cohen

A tour guide can make or break your visit. That long-awaited trip to Museum XYZ or the homes of the rich, famous, and deceased can be a boring visit. You’ve paid admission and hope for an enlightening and fun experience. Following the tour, you mumble, “I’ll never recommend this to anyone.”

Don’t underestimate the value of a good guide. However, I don’t know how to remedy this situation, because once you’re on the tour, it’s too late to slink out. I welcome any ideas that you have on this dilemma.

However, on last week’s trip to the Berkshires, I had the pleasure of taking part in several tour experiences. While learning about the information, I thought about one common denominator among these venues; each guide was a dynamic storyteller.
I created my own “Best Tour Guide to Do List”. In the case of each venue listed below, the person who led our little group possessed these skills.

  • 1. Know the subject very well.
  • 2. Be in love with your venue or exhibit. This is your baby.
  • 3. Realize that no one in the group knows more than you do and let them know so.
  • 4. Speak relatively slowly and articulately.
  • 5. Avoid jargon or explain it clearly.
  • 6. Answer questions and/or make it clear that you will respond eagerly and shortly.

Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA
I returned to the Museum to finish viewing the Leonardo Da Vinci “Machines in Motion” exhibit that I had first seen this winter. Trust me; give yourself a few hours to study the 40 true-to-design models of Leonardo’s Renaissance inventions. While not a bona fide tour guide, we caught the attention of two security men who told us the story of the intricacies of transporting and assembling the thousands of wooden and metal components to replicate airplanes, bicycles, machinery, farm equipment, safety devices, and a giant tank to hold four people, complete with cannons. The men gave us personal stories of their huge job to give life to the exhibit. Both were obviously proud of the outcome.

Chesterwood, Stockbridge, MA
I brought a friend who had never seen Chesterwood. Being my fourth visit, I pretty much knew the drill, I thought. Chesterwood was the home of Daniel Chester French, America’s foremost public sculptor. His most noted figure is Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C. The guide’s job is to bring approximately 12 people (usually tourists) through French’s home, studio, and exhibit/welcome center. There’s just so much one can say about the size of bedrooms, what chisel instruments French used, for example. Our docent, who told us that he had been a volunteer for 13 years, didn’t merely point to plaster horses and masks of Lincoln’s face; his comments were that of a storyteller.

St. Francis Art Gallery, South Lee, MA
You’d think it is a church of worship, and once upon a time, this small yellow building had a good number of parishioners. The pews still stand, strewn about the first floor. Once St. Francis Church on the edge of Lee, is now an art gallery of every genre of art imaginable. Even though we were a party of two, the guide offered a full tour, telling us the story of many pieces or group of pieces of paintings, sculpture, and portraits drawn by children. This gentleman was especially proud that most artists lived locally. He travels annually to purchase authentic Nigerian art. The guide knows his subject matter, whatever the field. His special “friends” are life-size sculpture of Henry VIII and Jack Benny. In fact, Mr. Benny stands in front of the gallery, welcoming guests inside.

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA
Without a doubt, it is obvious that the docents at NRM revere Mr. Rockwell. In fact, some knew the artist personally. Again, more stories. The cookie cutter tour focuses on the well-known pieces; i.e. Four Freedoms, Four Seasons, and Rosie the Riveter. Our guide told us some secrets; look for Rockwell in many of his works because he often put himself in crowd scenes or imaged some characters in his own likeness. The Q&A session of the tour was where the guide showed her stuff. Nothing stumped her, even questions about the minutia of a relatively obscure painting or background of the era represented. NRM docents are among the site’s best promoters. Once the tour is complete, guests are urged to take a trek up a short hill on the property to step into a replica of Rockwell’s actual studio; its interior looking as if the painter had taken a break and would shortly return.

Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio, Lenox, MA
On a warm day at the end of a heavy rainstorm, we looked for an indoor site of culture. Few have heard of Susie Frelinghuysen and George Morris, wife and husband pre-emanant abstract painters in the United States in the 1930’s. Their friends who stopped by the couple’s home and studio included other modern artists; Picasso, Miro, and Braque. A lovely recently graduated college student, art history major, in pursuit of her master’s degree served as our guide. Although her discussion was somewhat on script at the start, she smiled and loosened up, permitting interjections from her audience of approximately 12. While some guides act as if they are the be-all and end-all of the intricacy of their venue, our young lady admitted that she was not aware of some stories told to her by the guests, yet eager to learn as much as we were prepared to learn from her.

While not tours, per se, self-guided tours abound in the Berkshires. For example, Mark Morris’ dance performance at Jacob’s Pillow was thrilling. With time to kill before the concert’s start, it was an opportunity to view the Pillow’s grounds and gardens, visit The Barn filled with photography and art, check out other buildings on the property, and visit Outside/Inside free performances across the street.

In the upcoming week, I will venture to Naumkeg, the Red Lion Inn (tours given for the first time ever, this summer), DeVries Studio, and Ventfort Hall. My guess is that the tour guides will be pleasant storytellers as well.