A MEDIUM-SIZED slice of a county in western Massachusetts packs so much art, music, dance, and theater into its boundaries that residents and tourists call it a cultural jewel.
It's Berkshire County - a rural region of curving hills that stretches from Connecticut to Vermont and hugs the eastern border of New York.
The area's most well-known attraction is Tanglewood, the lovely summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where people flock on warm summer evenings to picnic on the manicured lawns and listen to the strains of classical music that float from the outdoor performance shed. But tucked away in the quaint towns and serene pastoral settings is a treasure chest of other cultural offerings.
Superlatives abound: In Williamstown, the Williams College Museum of Art houses the world's largest collection of paintings by Maurice Prendergast; a couple of miles away, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Museum boasts the second-largest collection of Renoirs in the United States. About 35 miles south in Stockbridge the new Norman Rockwell Museum displays the largest selection of his works. Stockbridge is also the site of the Berkshire Theater Festival, the second-oldest summer theater in the country,
that has hosted artists such as Lillian Gish, Katharine Hepburn, and Al Pacino. Nestled in the hills in Becket is Jacob's Pillow, a rustic farm-like spot for one of the country's preeminent dance festivals.
And that's just the beginning.
"I don't think most people realize what a cultural mecca this place is," says Scott Marshall, deputy director of the Edith Wharton Restoration, which owns The Mount, the author's former summer mansion in nearby Lenox.
"I'll be as objective as I can," says William Wilson Jr., executive director of the Berkshire Visitors Bureau in Pittsfield, the county's biggest city. "There's nothing in the country that has the breadth and depth and quality of culture that we have in this kind of a scenic environment."
Mr. Wilson counts about 40 cultural organizations, including performing arts, visual arts, and historical sites, in the Berkshires. Many have had roots in the area for years. Some have come and gone. But the number of artists and organizations gravitating to the region is steadily growing, Wilson says.
Tentative plans are afoot to build the world's largest museum of contemporary art in North Adams. One of the pearls the area recently captured is the National Music Foundation, which will showcase year-round performances in classical, jazz, rock, blues, and other genres of American music. "It's going to draw somewhere between 200,000 to 300,000 visitors a year from all over the world," Wilson says.
Why has the bucolic Berkshire region of Massachusetts been such a magnet for the arts?
In the cluttered, artifact-rich historical room of the Stockbridge Library, curator Polly Pierce explains that the county's cultural heritage dates back to the settling of Stockbridge in 1735.
That was the year John Sergeant established the first mission to the Mahican Indians. Other prominent families, lawyers, and ministers moved to the town during the late 18th century. By then it had evolved into a literary center and the area continued to attract writers such as Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Williams College in nearby Williamstown also drew notable authors and thinkers.
"When this trend started, other people came for the same reasons," Ms. Pierce says.
During the late 19th century, wealthy people, many from New York City, built huge stately "summer cottages" in the Berkshires, and the area became known as the "inland Newport." Their interest in culture led them to establish the Berkshire Theater Festival in 1928 and Tanglewood in 1937.
"Once Tanglewood got on its feet, then over the years ... it really served as a magnet, and the bigger it got the more drawing power it had," Wilson says. "So other cultural institutions such as theater and dance and even the visual arts were attracted to this area."
Today the Berkshires attracts about 2 million tourists each year, who spend about $170 million total. While recreational activities, such as skiing, hiking, and antique hunting, are popular, surveys show that cultural events are the biggest draw, Wilson says.
The Berkshires is not all picture-perfect main streets, however. While invisible to the average tourist, many families in towns like Pittsfield and North Adams and smaller towns in the south are struggling to make ends meet.
For years, the local economy revolved around manufacturing. But industry has declined as major employers such as General Electric, Sprague Electric Company, and others downsized or moved out of state. As a result many people have lost well-paying jobs and are now unemployed or working in service jobs that pay much less, says David Brown, program director for the Berkshire Community Action Council in Pittsfield. "The whole economy is working on a lot less money," he says, adding that the poverty level is increasing.
Culture will help propel the economic revitalization of the Berkshires, says John Mullin, director of the University of Massachusetts Center for Economic Development, which has just completed an economic development plan for Berkshire County.
"We'll never have the industrial base we had in the post-war era," Mr. Mullin says. "We have to look at what our special niche is, and that is building on the strengths related to culture and recreation. A lot more can be done," he says.
Tourists are mainly affluent well-educated adults, many from New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Mullin wants to capitalize on this crowd. "There's not a first-class hotel north of Pittsfield," he says. "So if I'm going to have high culture, I think I want the amenities to go with it. The key now is ... to build on the stuff that's going on at Williamstown." Attracting more people in the winter for skiing and creating activities for children are among the Center for Economic Development's goals.
Many residents, while welcoming tourist dollars, say careful planning is vital to preserve the environment and small-town charm.
"There are a lot of pressures for development. Severe pressures," says Paul Ivory, director of Chesterwood, the estate and museum of sculptor Daniel Chester French, who made the statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. "We need to keep the doors open for tourism, but controls are needed."
The nearly 40 arts groups sprinkled throughout the Berkshires belong to the Berkshire Arts Alliance - an informal marketing group. "We're not competitive," says Beatrice Snyder, manager of public affairs for the Norman Rockwell Museum. "We're all trying to work together to promote the Berkshires as a cultural region."
Still, while some organizations are doing well financially, for others it's a constant battle. Like many arts groups around the US, some here have seen funding from the National Endowment for the Arts drop substantially.
For example, Shakespeare & Company, which performs at the Wharton home, recently asked the audience for a donation before a production of two one-act plays. NEA funding for the organization had plummeted from $175,000 in 1980 to $11,000 this year.
"Keeping this place afloat is a continual activity," says Mr. Ivory of the Daniel Chester French estate.