On a search for a weekend activity that combined culture with COVID-consciousness, we recently stopped by the Worcester Art Museum (WAM), where we practically had the place to ourselves. Masks and social distancing are the rule, and the art-viewing public embraces those requirements. In addition, there are plenty of hand sanitizing stations throughout this fantastic central Massachusetts museum.
If you go, don’t miss the the Hunt Floor Mosaic, a huge piece located in the Renaissance Court. Patterned something like an oriental carpet, the multi-ton work was created in the early 500s and originates from the ancient Roman city of Antioch. With its hunters armed with bows and arrows, and big game animals depicted throughout, the the pursuit of prey is celebrated. The 246 ft. x 281 ft. marble and limestone mosaic underwent an extensive 18-month conservation effort, completed last summer. The much-loved treasure hasn’t looked this good since before it was all but destroyed in a major earthquake in the sixth century.
We caught a fascinating exhibit just before it closed, What the Nazis Stole from Richard Neumann (the last day was Jan. 17). Neumann, the president of a successful textile company and an avid art collector, was also an Austrian Jew, and his family’s most valuable artworks were seized by the Nazis in the late 1930s. The collection of over 200 paintings, sculptures, and decorative pieces was largely lost to Neumann through seizure, forced sale, and denied requests for export licenses as the family fled first from Vienna and later from Paris to Cuba. The WAM exhibit showed 14 of the recovered pieces, which took the family over 75 years to reclaim. Most of Neumann’s art remains in other hands.
The John Woodman Higgins Armory Collection is always high-interest for the kids. On view across a few galleries were five full suits of steel armor from medieval and Renaissance Europe. We remember the days when the suits of armor and other dangerous-looking accoutrements of war were housed in the now-closed Worcester Higgins Armory. WAM acquired the Higgins collection in 2013, making the museum the second-largest collection of arms and armor in the Americas, second only to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The plan is to get the entire Higgins Collection of 1,500+ objects on view in a dedicated Arms and Armor Gallery within a few years. Check the museum’s website to find out how kids can try on a helmet or heft a sword to get a real feel for these objects.
We’re always on the lookout for a Wellesley connection, and we found one. On exhibit through March 13 is Love Stories from the National Portrait Gallery, London. Real-life loves stories are presented through portraits of couples, some famous, some not, expressed through paintings, photography, and video. Photographs were on display of Wellesley’s own Sylvia Plath, WHS grad and 1982 poetry Pulitzer Prize Winner in Poetry (born 1932, died 1963), along with her husband Ted Hughes, also a poet.
Many of WAM’s collection of 38,000 objects grant the place serious bragging rights. In its early years, WAM demonstrated an appreciation of Impressionist painters by becoming one of the first museums in the world to purchase a Claude Monet painting of water lilies (1910). When WAM acquired Paul Gauguin’s painting Te Faaturuma (The Brooding Woman), it was the first work by the French artist to enter an American museum.
But it’s the sheer variety of art across the four-level museum that make this small but approachable place well worth a visit. Their holdings include centuries of Chinese art; art from the Ancient Americas; Indian, Islamic, Japanese, and Greek art; American folk art; baskets made by Native American in California; and American art from 1670 to the end of the twentieth century, including a collection of works by Paul Revere.
The gallery dedicated to the mid-20th century and later currently holds fifty works presented in three thematic installations: The Persistence of Abstraction, Revivals of Figuration and Portraiture, and Cultural Signs. No pictures were allowed here, so you’ll just have to go yourself to see how the creative minds of modern-day artists work such as Grace Hartigan, Alex Katz, Ellsworth Kelly, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol.
The museum offers free parking, and admission is free on the first Sunday of each month. We’ve heard the museum’s cafe is a good lunch spot, but it’s currently closed with no word on a reopening date. We tried out the nearby Miss Worcester Diner, a classic dining car that serves great comfort food in close quarters. Counter service and booths available, as well as take-out.
PLACE: Worcester Art Museum
ADDRESS: 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609
DISTANCE FROM WELLESLEY: Approximately 25 miles; a 50-minute drive
HOURS: Wednesday–Sunday, 10am-4pm
OF NOTE: Due to maintenance, there is no elevator access to lower third floor American art galleries. Inquire with staff for assistance.