Berkshires Art and Soul

The hills of western Massachusetts are alive with music, cutting-edge art, theater and dance.

As you drive the winding roads through a dappled landscape of maple, red oak, beech and birch trees, past quintessential New England villages, you might not realize that this corner of western Massachusetts is home to more than 65 cultural institutions. Yet, tucked among the green hills are preeminent museums, galleries and theaters whose exhibitions and performances will satisfy any lover of the arts, serious or casual.


The hills are literally alive with music at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Located between Stockbridge township and Lenox, the estate’s 500-plus acres of lawns and gardens provide a perfect backdrop for classical music, as well as occasional pop and jazz concerts. Most performances take place either at the Koussevitzky Music Shed, an open auditorium that seats 5,000, or at the 1,200-seat Seiji Ozawa Hall. The seats sell out quickly, so it’s best to reserve in advance. For a more spur-of-the-moment outing, bring folding chairs (you can rent some there, too) or just a blanket, and picnic on the lawn outside either hall—tickets are almost always available. The air smells of fresh-cut grass, and as the sun sets in the hills and the music swells, there’s nothing more magical.


For something more contemporary and experimental, head up the road about 30 miles to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, the largest center for contemporary visual and performing arts in the country. Housed in the former Sprague Electric Co. plant in North Adams, the 13-acre MASS MoCA “campus” (as it’s called) includes enormous galleries with changing art exhibitions, a bookstore, shops and restaurants.MASS MoCA’s performing arts schedule includes music, theater, dance, film and cabaret.

Since MASS MoCA opened its doors in the late 1980s, Boston and New York artists have flocked to North Adams, setting up studios and lofts in nearby industrial buildings. Hudsons displays artworks along with antiques, Persian rugs and collectibles. A weekend gallery at the Eclipse Mill, a former textile mill that’s home to potters, painters, musicians and other artists, shows works by residents.


Williamstown, 5 miles west of North Adams, is always abuzz with creative activity. This small town near the border of Vermont and New York is home to Williams College, and has a world-class theater festival and two influential art institutions. The Williams College Museum of Art holds a collection of more than 13,000 works that span the history of art. Theater lovers shouldn’t miss the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which presents new plays and reinterprets the classics, as well as hosting late-night cabarets and other special programs and events.


If you just can’t get enough live theater, you’ll find that the Berkshires are brimming with other superb performances. Shakespeare & Co. has been showcasing the Bard in Lenox for 33 seasons. In Stockbridge, ditch your car and walk to a show at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. One of the country’s oldest professional regional theaters, it offers a mix of revivals, classics and premieres. The Main Stage was originally designed as a casino by Stanford White in 1888; the Unicorn Theatre sits in the Mellon family’s former barn.

Close to the center of Stockbridge, stone pillars mark the entrance to the 36-acre estate of the Norman Rockwell Museum. A New Yorker by birth, the famed illustrator is most often associated with this corner of the Berkshires. It’s here that he spent his last 25 years, mining the local populace as models for his depictions of small-town American life. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of Rockwell’s art, presented in changing exhibits that offer something new each visit.


Dance lovers flock to Becket for Jacob’s Pillow, America’s longest-running dance festival. There are ticketed shows and many more free performances available, plus talks, rehearsal observations, tours and events. During the free Inside/Out series, emerging dance companies perform on an outdoor stage, set among the trees. The performances, only 35 minutes each, are held Wednesday through Saturday at 6:15 p.m.—and all are welcome. In fact, that’s true of almost every event in the Berkshires. On July 4, Jacob’s Pillow offers a free day of performances, art and music. Experienced dancers can even join a master class (registration required).

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