An Unlikely Partnership Makes Sense
by Don Wilkinson
The New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park (NBWNHP) is a 16-acre urban park spread over thirteen city blocks, many of them cobblestoned, and is part of the National Park Service (NPS). In 2014, the NBWNHP approached the New Bedford Art Museum/Artworks! (NBAM/AW!) to invite it to participate in the centennial anniversary celebration of the NPS. It was decided that the museum would host an exhibition of works by the famed 19th century landscape painter of the American West, Albert Bierstadt. Born in Solingen, Rhine Province, Prussia in 1830, Bierstadt moved to New Bedford with his family the following year.
But why a Bierstadt show to celebrate the NPS? There is a meandering, far-reaching connective thread. His paintings of the frontier, when exhibited and copied and published back East during the years in the ugly shadow that followed Civil War, captured the imagination with thoughts of glory, riches and new beginnings. Bierstadt was not the horse that was Manifest Destiny, but he was the spur on the boot heel that jolted the steed to a gallop.
The western expansion changed the face of the nation, and that change was a double-edged sword. One edge was the slaughter of indigenous people; the extraction of minerals; the rerouting of rivers for agricultural irrigation; the taking of animal life; and the alterations to the great woods, plains, mountains and bodies of water that would forever change the landscape itself. The other edge is the germination of the seeds of preservation and conservation, as tended to by the great John Muir, the “Father of the National Park Service.”
Working with a host of cultural collaborators and lenders from across the nation, including the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Rotch-Jones-Duff House, the Trustees of Reservations and many others, NBAM/AW! has mounted an ambitious and provocative showing. Perhaps the most important partner was the New Bedford Free Public Library, located directly across the street from the museum. The library generously lent three striking Bierstadt paintings and their Curator of Art, scholar Janice Hodson, who worked with the museum’s exhibition manager J.R. Uretsky and a small army of volunteers. The show is built around Bierstadt and features the three paintings from the library as well as four rarely- or never-before-seen works lent by anonymous collectors, several paintings from other cultural institutions, and a series of his engravings.