Scope Out Art in the Berkshires

1. Where to Stay

The Porches Inn, inside and out.Photo: Courtesy of Kristian Septimius Krogh/The Porches Inn

For ridiculously easy access to MASS MoCA, book a room in one of the Porches Inn’s six restored Victorians (from $125) located right across the street from the museum. A long wooden porch creaking with slat-back rocking chairs connects the buildings, once home to hundreds of mill workers (note the galvanized metal lunchboxes used for room service). Suites are decorated in so-called “industrial granny chic” (patchwork bedspreads, forties-era lamps, cushy armchairs) and share a heated outdoor pool that’s open for splashing all night long.

Ecoconscious from the bamboo floorboards to the solar-paneled rooftops, the brand-new Topia Inn (from $115) is the Berkshires’ first green B&B. Each of the inn’s ten rooms were designed by artist friends of the owners, a composer and dancer who also run the nearby Topia Arts Center. Both are situated on the scenic, eleven-mile Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, great for a morning walk capped by an aromatherapy shower back in your suite.

It was Whistler’s nephew, not his mother, who once lived in the 1820s English Tudor manor now known as Whistler’s Inn (from $160). Furnished with chandeliers, marble fireplaces, and a Steinway grand in the sitting room, the inn drips with old-world elegance—also ghosts. Three of them haunt the place, supposedly, and rooms five, seven, and twelve are said to be especially paranormally active.

Take a scenic chair lift to the summit of Jiminy Peak (from $99), where you can gawk at the 386-foot wind turbine installed earlier this summer. (It’s the first of its kind at a North American mountain resort.) Though nothing fancy, the resort offers cheap, spacious, understated accommodations smack in the center of the Berkshires.

2. Where to Eat

SpicePhoto: Courtesy of Spice

After an afternoon at the Berkshire Museum, grab dinner at Spice, located in the old home of the Besse-Clark Department Store in Pittsfield. The chef hails from the Four Seasons, the menu’s locally sourced, and the décor is stylishly modern (exposed brick, dark wood, dim lighting), but the real scene-stealer is the ladies’ room, built inside of the original iron scrollwork elevator.

On the way to Tanglewood for a sunset recital, stop in at Truc Orient Express (3 Harris St., West Stockbridge; 413-232-4202), a gourmet Vietnamese restaurant that doubles as an art gallery and Buddhist temple set alongside the lazy Williams River. Sit in the enclosed porch and order the Happy Pancake, a crispy rice-flour crêpe stuffed with pork, followed by the best dish on the menu: a perfectly airy lemon mousse.

On the same street that Norman Rockwell immortalized in his warm and fuzzy “Stockbridge–Christmas on Main Street,” Widow Bingham’s Tavern in the Red Lion Inn is a Berkshires classic. For a truly Rockwellian experience, nab the semi-enclosed crimson booth across from the entrance bar and carve up the roasted native turkey.

Neighboring farm workers stop by Bartlett’s Orchard in Richmond as early as 8 a.m. to load up on delicious sugar cider doughnuts ($3.79 per dozen) and fresh apple cider, two staples that keep this roadside farm stand afloat until apple-picking season begins on Labor Day.

3. What to Do

MASS MoCAPhoto: Courtesy of MASS MoCA

The Berkshires has emerged as a major destination for the visual arts, drawing both sick-of-the-city weekenders and artists in search of cheap studio space and inspiration. Much of the action revolves around the big, ambitious, sometimes controversial projects mounted at MASS MoCA. One absurdly complex installation, Training Ground for Democracy, is the subject of a court battle over whether the museum should show it in its current, unfinished state. While a settlement is reached, catch a glimpse of it under a yellow tarp in the football-field-size Building 5.

Less than five minutes away, Eclipse Mill Artist Lofts is a former textile mill now housing a live-work artists’ community in 40 condos. Some of the studios are as big as 3,500 square feet, creating a lively mix of sculptures and photos amid pots, pans, and other household stuff. Don’t leave without checking out space No. 203, where painter Rick Harlow displays abstract landscapes inspired by his travels in the Colombian Amazon.

Don’t expect a New York moment for “The Unknown Monet,” an exhibit of recently discovered pastels and drawings by Claude Monet. The show debuted in March at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and makes its lone Stateside appearance at the Clark in Williamstown (through September 16). The museum, spread across 140 acres, is currently being renovated by architect Annabelle Selldorf, who previously overhauled the Neue Galerie.

4. Insider’s Tip

Photo: Courtesy of Eric Rudd

Artists in search of cheap studio space have resorted to snapping up abandoned churches and tearing out pews to create large-scale installations. Check out sculptor Eric Rudd’s Chapel for Humanity, an epic of over 150 life-size figures and 54 ceiling panels housed in a former Unitarian-Universalist Church in North Adams. Rudd wrote The Art Studio/Loft Manual: For Ambitious Artists and Creators and is often on hand to share his expertise on finding and financing alternative art spaces.

5. An Oddball Day

The MountPhoto: Courtesy of Kevin Sprague

Though the Berkshires is a crowded family retreat these days, in the nineteenth century it was the exclusive summer playground of New York’s wealthiest, including J.P. Morgan’s sister, Sarah, who hosted lavish soirées at her weekend home Ventfort Hall—now the Museum of the Gilded Age. On the first floor, check out “Les Petites Dames de Mode,” an extraordinary exhibit of 59 miniature ladies dressed in exquisitely detailed gowns and coiffed with real human hair.

Get back on Route 7 and head straight for the second-floor library of the Mount, Edith Wharton’s obsessively symmetrical estate in Lenox. Though the repository is officially closed to the public, librarians allow entrance when asked (nicely). Once inside, thumb through the 2,600-book collection, sprinkled with pressed flowers, annotations, signed copies, and 22 first editions of Wharton’s work. Grab a salad niçoise and glass of Pinot Grigio from the Terrace Café and lie out on the writer’s lavish gardens. (Just steer clear of the kinda-creepy pet cemetery on the hilltop.)

6. Related Links

For listings and descriptions of the area’s many museums and galleries, check out Berkshire Visual Arts.

The Berkshire Eagle publishes detailed info on music, theater, and dance events in town.

Berkshire Web has a clickable map of 35 towns with a selection of hotels in each area.

Scope Out Art in the Berkshires