'American Chronicles' Not To Be Missed

To anyone who might question the societal importance of institutions like the Tacoma Art Museum and what they offer us, I issue a dare:

Spend one hour at TAM’s current exhibition, “American Chronicles: the Art of Norman Rockwell,” which opened on Feb. 26 and runs through May 30. Ponder the 40 paintings, 323 “Saturday Evening Post” covers, plus assorted documents and photos, all from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA.

Then, ask yourself if art matters.

You will have plenty of company during the final month of the traveling exhibition’s only stop in the Northwest. Attendance is ranging from 300 to 700 visitors per day. And that’s not counting school groups or tour groups. On the “Third Thursday” evenings (5 p.m. - 8 p.m.), when admission is free, that number has reached around 2,000.

“Rockwell captured the tenacity of the American spirit like no other artist in recent history,” Tacoma Art Museum Director Stephanie A. Stebich said in a press release. “His images not only evoke memories from the past, but they also call on the young and old alike to consider what it means to be an American today.”

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) began formal art lessons at age 14. Within two years, he painted his first commission, a set of four Christmas cards. He went on to become a prolific visual storyteller, producing more than 4,000 works of art during a career spanning 65 years, chronicling life in America from a mostly positive and optimistic perspective.

According to text included in the exhibition, a reporter from “Time” said of Rockwell in 1943, “He constantly achieves that compromise between a love of realism and the tendency to idealize, which is one of the most deeply ingrained characteristics of the American people.”

For most of us the name “Rockwell” brings to mind images of childhood innocence, family joys, romance, nostalgia, and poignancy. But as the decades passed, Rockwell found himself compelled to express an ugly aspect of life in America that festered and bled into headlines, and for which he had no tolerance: racial bigotry.

In 1964, during the early days of school desegregation in the South, he painted “The Problem We All Live With,” depicting 6-year-old Ruby Bridges as the first African-American child to attend a formerly all-white school, being escorted for her own safety. During the following year, he painted “Murder in Mississippi” to illustrate the slaying of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. In addition to photos and studies of the work in progress, you can view his penciled personal notes, including a grim list of other victims of killings based on race.

I dare those who grumble about money being spent on making art available to the public to see “American Chronicles,” then try to walk away without a full heart and a lump in their throats. Try doing so without experiencing a greater depth of thought and feeling, a stronger sense of pride, humility, joy, humor, nostalgia, patriotism, even shame. Anyone who can look at these, and not be moved or changed, is not fully human.

Note: Please see the museum’s website for hours, directions, and other information, such as related events including, “Let’s Have a Picnic” Americana Celebration for the whole family, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., Sunday, a painting workshop May 14 – 15, and a visit with Ruby Bridges, who will share her stories of the civil rights movement May 21, at 2 p.m.