If you were to picture New England in your mind’s eye, I imagine it would look something like this: a mountain range, rugged but not insurmountable, gives way to cultivated fields, a tidy small town complete with church steeple and discreet smokestack to symbolize piety and prosperity, and perhaps a train pulling in from the periphery to represent progress and a sense of connection to the larger world. Alternately, you might conjure an image of the rocky coast, a spot where waves lap and roar with the season, creating an awe-inspiring rhythm that reminds us of unfathomable depths and unknowable timelines. I rather doubt you thought of a triple-decker in a mill town or a skidder in the woods. The reality of New England, however, is that we are a region of contrasts.
New England has long played an important role in the American imagination. In the decades after the Civil War, New England came to represent the nation as a whole. New England poets were American poets. The White Mountains were an American landscape. Socially heterogeneous, highly industrial, and increasingly urban, New England seemed poised to maintain this economic and cultural hegemony over the rest of the country for the coming century, but that did not happen. As we know, somehow the clock started winding backward. New England became a region where, as often as not, the past became the story rather than the setting.
Our two new exhibitions, New England Now and Mapping an Uneven Country, trace the creative tension between past and present in New England. The former is the inaugural effort in a biennial series that explores artists’ responses to the idea of place and region. The latter looks at the ways Vermonters portrayed their communities from on high in the 19th century. Taken together, they represent Shelburne Museum’s commitment to exploring the creative culture of our region. As always, we could not organize projects like these without your support, so I thank you and look forward to seeing you in the galleries.