Stockbridge — When it comes to the topic of programming for children and families, Mary Berle approaches the discussion from a unique vantage point: Rather than view it as one cog in a larger wheel, she envisions a continuum—one that works in both directions at that. In her first year as chief educator at the Norman Rockwell Museum—a position she assumed after 13 years with the Berkshire Hills Regional School District—Berle is currently engaged in an outstanding conversation, one that runs the gamut from third-graders to high school students. Next on the docket? Working with art teachers and guidance counselors this spring to identify 20 eighth-graders who will be tapped to take part in the Rockwell Museum Young Leaders Program, a four-year workforce development program in conjunction with the museum.

Mary Berle. Photo courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum

“There are two ways we are thinking about education,” Berle told The Edge during a recent conversation in the NRM archives, from opposite sides of the very table where school-aged children are invited to don white cotton gloves in order to peruse the museum’s collection of Saturday Evening Post covers. “One strand is appreciating art and recognizing the value of art and cultural experiences in our lives to help us make sense of the human condition,” she explained. The other is “really thoughtful support for those who will continue in illustration or arts management,” she continued. It is the latter goal from which the Rockwell Museum Young Leaders Program springs forth.

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Berle and her colleagues are actively seeking current 8th grade students—from BHRSD, Southern Berkshire Regional School District, Lee, Lenox and Pittsfield—who might be a good fit for what Berle calls an “immersive and inclusive” experience spanning their high school years. Building off of the Berkshire County Student Passport Program, aimed at providing a 360-degree learning opportunity for local third- and fourth-grade students, the Young Leaders Program provides a logical segue for older students who have already been hooked by the NRM. The goal of the Passport Program is to eventually engage every public elementary school in Berkshire County in this immersive arts education opportunity. In turn, the museum hopes its newest program will boost arts education and create familiarity and civic pride in the region’s cultural institutions. Local students who have experienced this connection and are hungry to further their study in myriad fields from illustration to arts management are encouraged to apply.

Students work on a project associated with the Norman Rockwell Museum’s ‘The Art and Wit of Rube Goldberg’ exhibit during April vacation week. Photo courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum

“Following the immersive, everyone-is-included experience [for elementary school students],” Berle is now looking to middle and high school students. “We are really eager to shape what that experience will look like with [the students]” Berle emphasized. While the program is still in the early stages of development—it will officially launch in July—Berle promises it will be multifaceted. The Norman Rockwell Museum is committed to workforce development in the arts for local students. The rising ninth-graders, 20 in all, will spend the next four years learning about all aspects of running the museum. Museum staff in the curatorial, visitor services, accounting, education, development, digital media and marketing departments are eager to connect with students and work with them through their high school years.

Year One will offer participants free membership, including invitations to all programs and regular meetings for the cohort to learn about the role of the museum in the community, art as a process not only of creation but also of innovation, how art connects with and affects all other areas of study, and how community service provides connection. Students will enjoy utilizing a dedicated web portal with access to artist interviews, discussion boards, and invitations to specific programs and events. In addition, experiences and content will be informed by the students’ requests and interests. There will be docent training and opportunities to lead tours and programs at the museum, and opportunities for service in the form of tours, support with programs and artists’ talks will be ongoing. Finally, monthly meetings to learn about each department will reveal what really happens behind the scenes to run a world-class museum.

High school students from the Albany, N.Y., area participating in the Norman Rockwell Museum’s ‘Reimagining the Four Freedoms’ student artwork exhibit in April. Photo courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum

Year Two will revolve around the addition of mentoring and internship opportunities in specific departments; students will also be afforded in-person classes and meetings with illustrators close to the museum. Year Three will consist of additional mentoring, offering deeper work within a particular department or new placements. Additional opportunities range from serving the museum’s elementary programs and/or working with Rockwell Scholars and artists to securing possible employment. In Year Four, students will be assigned mentors to support post-graduation decision-making including support for the college application process, vocational training or job placement. Students will leave the program with deep knowledge about the museum world including pathways to careers in art; curatorial; operations; education and engagement; technology including cutting-edge virtual reality, web design and management; retail sales and event planning; and facilities and maintenance.

Berle joined the Norman Rockwell Museum in September 2018, assuming a newly created senior-level position to lead the museum’s education vision at a pivotal time of growth. In this position, she has built on the strengths of the museum’s robust education program currently led by chief curator Stephanie Plunkett and digital learning director Rich Bradway. Integral to the growth of this department are the myriad collaborations the NRM has established.

Mary Berle, seen here when she was principal of Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School, helping a youngster learn the ropes during a unicycle club session at Muddy Brook. Photo: David Scribner

In her role as principal at Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School in Great Barrington, Berle worked on the process of collaborative care—in particular, getting support for children and families who needed immediate help. In her new position, she continues to explore this discussion, albeit from a different vantage point:  “What are the proactive things we can do as a community to support connection and resilience for children and families?” is at the root of this exploration. And the fulcrum upon which this current conversation hinges is laser-focused—specifically, “what’s the role of arts organizations?”

Berle’s focus since September has been on creating immersive experiences in the arts for students of all ages. The Rockwell Museum Young Leaders Program is poised to create a platform to support rising ninth-graders, a population not directly targeted by the NRM in other programming. The Mass Cultural Council—which posits that, in all its forms, culture is essential to the health and vitality of the Commonwealth—has been focused on the arts as an economic driver. What’s shifting is the trending recognition that arts are connected to wellness. In fact, Berle is working with current findings that show individuals who engage in both arts and cultural experiences are “more connected, more resilient and happier” than those who do not engage in such experiences.

“We’re just beginning to build,” Berle said. “It’s all a piece of making sense of community needs and developing model programs that [not only] serve the community, [but also] stand as examples that other museums can follow.” Herein lies another intersection of this important work. Berle has worked closely with Lisa Donovan, a professor of arts management in the fine and performing arts department at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, has begun research through a National Endowment for the Arts grant on how “the most renowned cultural assets” in the Berkshires, more than 50 in all, could be leveraged with local educators to deepen and strengthen rural educational opportunities. Her research helped develop the Berkshire Cultural Assets Network (a program funded by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation), of which Berle serves as co-chair. The goal of this ongoing work is to integrate the role of arts in the public schools so that all students feel connected to their cultural heritage, which returns to Rockwell, and why the NRM is so passionate about bringing these programs to fruition. “Illustration art helps to both shape and reflect society,” said Berle, “[resulting in] a sacred space for people to come and be stimulated and inspired to make the word a better place.” Current eighth-grade students who are interested in applying to be part of the inaugural Rockwell Museum Young Leaders Program, are encouraged to contact Berle directly at mberle@nrm.org.





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