April 11, 2016

Creative Synergy

Fitchburg, Massachusetts is one of those small New England cities that boomed with the first three-quarters of the 20th Century but has struggled in recent years.  Its largest employer decamped in 1998 for cheaper labor and taxes, taking 4,000 industrial jobs with it.  Too far (48 miles) from Boston to be a commuter suburb, Fitchburg – population 42,000 – has had to reinvent itself.
Fitchburg retains architectural charm
Reinvention is aided mightily when a town preserves the best of its architecture from its heyday.  It is beneficial when those industrial barons from a century ago were collectors of art and bequeathed their collections to local museums.  And it is a decided plus to have a garden club with a half-century-long illustrious history and a mission that is heavy on “giving back” to the community.
I saw these disparate elements come together on Friday evening, when I accompanied my wife, Betty, to the reception for the 18th “Art in Bloom” at the Fitchburg Art Museum.  There, 36 works of art – paintings, sculptures, tapestries, photographs – had been interpreted by members (and invited non-members) of the Laurelwood Garden Club.
It was a festive evening: 200 invited guests imbibed above-average wine and seriously good hors d’oeuvres while listening to a jazz band.  The mayor was there; Fitchburg’s state representative was in attendance as were a goodly number of the Museum’s Board of Trustees.  In short, this was a serious event.  Betty was there
A small part of the Art in Bloom reception
because she is President of the state Garden Club Federation (of which Laurelwood is a member) and, as an accredited floral design judge, she had been asked to select one entry for a “best in show” blue ribbon. 
The premise of an “Art in Bloom” is fairly well understood (I explored it last month in “Reaching Out”).  The “art” half of the equation can be anything from grade school drawings to the multimedia creation of an honors student or a Picasso blue nude.  The “bloom” side of the ledger is a garden club member being assigned (or choosing) a piece of art and creating a floral design inspired by it.  The two stand together for everyone to see for form their own judgement about whether the interpreter “got it”.
One of the Triiibe pieces.  The curly
willow branches in the floral
interpretation seem to flow into the
photo triptych
Two things set Fitchburg’s “Art in Bloom” apart from its peers.  The first was the art.  The museum is light on Picassos, blue or otherwise.  But it has an energetic and imaginative loan program.  One of exhibits, called “Triiibe: Same Difference” spans multiple galleries and employs life-size photos, videos, and props to make its frequently satirical points about equality, gender, and politics.  You might think that “garden club ladies” would steer well away from such topical art.  You would be wrong.  Museum Director Nick Capasso told me the 14 artworks chosen for interpretation in the Triiibe exhibit were the most coveted slots. 
Another of the Triiibe pieces.  The
floral design at left interprets the
visible artwork.  An interpretation
of a different work is at right.
Similarly, a photography gallery filled with both vintage and modern silver gelatin prints drew a rush for entries.  Black-and-white photos do not immediately lend themselves to floral interpretation.  Do you follow a monochrome palette?  Do you fall back on a pavĂ© design that stays true to the image in front of you?  The short answer is that none of the designers played it safe.
The second thing that makes Fitchburg’s program noteworthy is synergy.  Last year’s “Art in Bloom” drew 1300 visitors to the museum, making it the highest attendance weekend of the year.  Director Capasso said he agreed only to “take a test drive” about the event when he arrived at the museum four years ago.  Today, he is fully on board.  “There is so much creative energy,” was his summing-up comment.

I’m in awe of what the Laurelwood Garden Club did, as well as the resources – people and organizational – devoted to the project by the Fitchburg Art Museum.  It is very rare for two institutions collaborating on a once-a-year project to have such a profound and tangibly beneficial effect on one another.  Kudos to both.

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