The Rockwell Museum is a great place to experience a Wild West adventure without leaving your time zone. You can take a visual trip along the Rio Grande via the art of Walter Ufer (1867-1936), founder of the Taos Society of Artists, or join Norman Rockwell on a buffalo hunt as you journey through the American past and become familiar with life out West.
No, Norman is no relation to the museum’s founding collector Bob Rockwell, who grew up in Colorado. He moved to Corning as a young man in 1933 to help his grandfather run a chain of family department stores, The Rockwell Co., on Market Street and in three other small cities in the area. With him, he brought a love for Western culture.
A home, home off the range
Bob grew up in Colorado, where his parents appreciated and displayed Western art, and developed a passion for colleting it. Their passion soon became their son’s, and Bob began his own collection after he relocated to Corning. The family store became the showcase for the paintings and bronzes he had amassed, but the vast and precious collection quickly outgrew that location. In 1976, Bob and his wife, Hertha, decided to donate much of the collection to the museum that bears their name. It was originally located at the Baron Steuben Place, but in 1982 was moved to its present home in the City Hall building, which was purchased for the Rockwells by Corning Inc. for $1. The company helped move and re-invent the circa 1893 building, through its program of giving for cultural institutions.
Six for the price of one
“We focus on American Western art and the Native American culture, with our mission specifically devoted to fostering a deeper understanding of those cultures and traditions through dynamic exhibitions and educational activities that will interest a broader public,” said Beth Harvey, the museum’s marketing and communications representative. On display are six permanent collections that explore the people, places and ideas that have been shaped by the West. The collections include: wilderness, buffalo, horses, Indians, cowboys, and the Southwest.
The Wilderness Collection illustrates the Native American wilderness before and after the English settled in the New World. Wild animals, savage peoples and open terrain are illustrated throughout many of the works. Featured artists include Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt.
The Buffalo Collection, home of Henry Merwin Shrady’s well-known Elk Buffalo bronze, depicts what an integral part of Native American culture the buffalo played. Buffalos are seen both in action or being honored after death, as seen in Joseph Henry Sharp’s “Prayer to the Spirit of the Buffalo.”
The Horse Collection presents works with vivid detail and rich color. The horses are shown with men on their backs, hooves in the air and wind running through their manes. The works demonstrate the need, at the time, for horses and allow the visitor to understand the great impact they had on Native American life after they came here in the mid-1500s with Spanish explorers.
The Indian Collection illustrates the stereotypical idea of a peaceful people by introducing works to visitors that contain women and Indian villages. The range of images also allows visitors to see the impassioned and angry Indian. Native American artists have produced works that illustrate their perspective on Indian culture and land, and provide a context in which to compare American artists’ depictions of Indians.
Cowboys and Indians, the ultimate symbol of the Wild West, is explored in the Cowboy Collection. The idea of the bronco-riding and damsel-in-distress-saving cowboys is perpetuated in the art featured within this collection, which includes William H. Dunton’s “Bronco Buster.”
The Southwest Collection is the last in the series and shows “the spirit of the place,” said Beth, who has a deep appreciation for the beauty in Western art. In addition to paintings, such as Nicolai Fechin’s “Sorrento Valley,” which is an impressionistic view of the land, the collection displays textiles, pottery and woodcarvings from native artists.
The color scheme for each gallery is inspired by the oranges, reds, blues and greens in Ufer’s “Along the Rio Grande,” which has a permanent home in the third-floor gallery. To complement the Western feel of the museum’s interior, outside is a bronze bison bursting through the brick walls of the Romanesque building. A local artist created the bison that was named Artemis, by a local child, to further promote the cultural value of art, because as his name suggests, “art is a must.”
Just for kids
The Rockwell Museum seeks to spark an interest in the American West among visitors, both young and old, that goes beyond wearing trendy cowboy boots and hats. The goal is to educate the community, while making the experience fun. “The educational department is multi-faceted and provides curriculum materials for local schools within a 100-mile radius, targeting Kindergarten through fifth grades,” said Harvey. Secondary education is also targeted, but the Rockwell Museum wants to instill into younger children the attraction of art.
“Artpacks” are a free activity designed around four themes: Native American, cowboy, wilderness and, most recently, the horse artpack. Cindy Weakland, director of public programs, said, “Artpacks are backpacks filled with interesting information, creative activities, puzzles and games that highlight the best of our collection in a way that appeals to children.” Beth Harvey added, “Kids use them as a navigational tool and as somewhat of a scavenger hunt.”
Many children visit the museum with their families and classes and enjoy not only searching for the images, but also making their own jewelry. “The program is a fun and interactive learning tool,” said Beth.
The “Journey West” pass, given to children who visit with their schools, invites each child back and includes one free adult admission. It was designed to encourage families to visit the museum so the experienced young trailblazer can guide them around. “When children go home after their first visit they tell their parents about their experience,” said Beth. “The Journey West pass helps to make the return-visit rate really high.”
Eat, observe, shop and play
“We are a Western art museum located in the middle of New York State, but visitors are pleasantly surprised by the authentic Western feel,” said Beth. “It’s accomplished not only through the art and the look of the museum, but by the unique stops throughout the building.”
The Cantina Restaurant offers Tex-Mex food for the weary traveler who needs to refuel before tackling the expansive West. The Lodge features a fireplace and cozy couches, and the artwork of Frederick Remington and Charles Russell. “No Western art museum would be complete without them,” noted Beth. The Trading Post, the museum’s store, is the place to snag a fragment of the past, whether you prefer a replica of an antique Western sign or a turquoise necklace similar to those made by Native American women. The Kid-Friendly West area located at the end of the art trail allows visitors to dress up in costumes and experience life in a teepee as a fun way to round out their museum experience.
During the summer, the Rockwell offers the Music, Margaritas and Sunset program. It’s for adults and takes place on the third floor terrace. For children, there’s the Kids West Festival held annually. It offers a chance for children to travel in time and feel a part of the West in a life-sized village. “We place chalkboards in the village and let the kids paint the town West,” Beth said about the free festival, “It is our gift to the community.” Activities include face painting, eating and games that reincorporate the beauty of Western art and culture.
by Deirdre Byrne
Deirdre Byrne lives in Kinnelon, New Jersey. She enjoys the Finger Lakes region, especially wine tasting.