MANCHESTER - The images are at once familiar and surprising: A family gathered around a holiday dinner table, worshippers joined in prayer, a voter speaking up at town meeting, and parents tucking their children into bed.
As the presidential primary season heats up, a new interactive exhibition at the Currier Museum of Art, “We Are For Freedoms,” explores and challenges our understanding of what freedom means in America today.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a series of re-imaginings of the iconic “Four Freedoms” paintings by Norman Rockwell. Rockwell was inspired to create the originals by a 1941 speech by President Franklin Roosevelt to Congress in which he defined four basic human freedoms: freedom of speech and worship, and freedom from want and fear.
The new versions of those images were created by artists from For Freedoms, a New York-based organization that is partnering with the Currier on the new exhibition and outreach projects. “The thesis of the project was: What would the four freedoms look like in the 21st Century,” explained Samantha Cataldo, the Currier’s curator of contemporary art.
What’s immediately striking about the photographs is the diversity of the people depicted. Instead of the Caucasian family gathered around the holiday table in Freedom from Want, there’s a melting pot of smiling dinner guests. And the Freedom of Worship images depict adherents of mainstream and minority religions alike.
The new exhibition opened to the public last weekend and continues through March 1, 2020. “We timed it so that we could have the exhibition up before and during the primary,” Cataldo said. “What better way to harness this energy where everyone’s looking to see what the state does on Feb. 11?”
Ginnie Lupi, director of the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, was among those who attended the exhibit opening last weekend. The Rockwell images from 1943 had her thinking about her 93-year-old father, and “how he went into the Navy in 1944 because he wanted to fight for these freedoms.”
“And I think about what they mean to us today and, generationally, how our take on them may be different,” Lupi said. “It’s just extraordinary.”
It’s an interactive exhibit. Visitors can opt to be photographed and voice their own most cherished freedoms; the resulting images will become a “digital freedom quilt” that will fill one wall of the gallery.
And on an adjacent wall covered in vinyl, visitors can finish the phrase “I Am …” Folks of a certain age will recognize the echoes of the iconic 1968 photographs from the civil rights movement, featuring marchers holding up signs reading: “I am a Man.”
Megan Hoover of Barrington visited the Currier last Saturday and added her words to the wall: “I am thankful and proud.”
Hoover said she found the new exhibition moving. “You look at all this and you sort of realize the meaning of freedom has changed over time,” she said.
The Currier plans a series of free “town hall” gatherings that will focus on the four freedoms. Led by trained moderators, each event will feature guest artists, “there to spark ideas and drive the conversation,” Cataldo said.
These events are designed to be not just nonpartisan but “anti-partisan,” Cataldo said. She hopes folks from across the political spectrum will attend.
“It’s not about people’s specific platform or the candidate they support or the lightning rod issues they’re for or against, that drive their personal vote,” she said. “But there are these bigger questions.”
“It’s not talking at; it’s talking with,” she said.
The first town hall, Freedom from Fear on Nov. 7, will explore issues of immigration and integration. Subsequent events will focus on Freedom from Want on Dec. 8, Freedom of Speech on Jan. 20, (Martin Luther King Day) and Freedom of Worship on Feb. 6.
Art in participation
Evan Walsh is exhibition and projects manager at For Freedoms; he’s a 2017 graduate of Emerson College in Boston, where he studied photography and writing.
Working at For Freedoms and participating in its town halls has changed how he interacts with individuals with whom he might disagree, Walsh said. “Listening and having hard conversations is a skill you have to cultivate,” he said.
As an artist, Walsh believes art museums can be places that cultivate those skills and conversations. And he said, ”I do think it’s important that museums create spaces where everyone can see themselves, and that includes people from all different backgrounds.”
There is also a public art component to the “Freedoms” exhibition, with billboards and bus shelter posters going up around the city.
Museum visitors are encouraged to make lawn signs expressing the freedoms that mean the most to them. And they’re offered postcards depicting the “Four Freedoms” images. “We’re encouraging people to write to their representatives about something important to them,” Cataldo said.
This is not a typical museum exhibition, she said. “A lot of the ‘art’ happens in participation, in the community engaging with the ideas in the exhibition and taking part in the discussions, or adding their voice to some of the particular elements,” she said.
”Power to move people”
Richard Kruppa and his wife Helen made the trip from Exeter for last Saturday’s opening; they have seen the original Rockwell paintings in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. “It’s interesting to see the images from 1943 put into more contemporary times,” he said. “In these paintings, it was a very different America.”
But while the new “freedom” portraits celebrate American diversity, Helen Kruppa couldn’t help but notice that the photos of billboards featured on one gallery wall mostly represented liberal ideas. “I wondered how someone who’s a Trump supporter would come through and look at that,” she said. “It resonated for us, but as I looked at it, I thought it might not be that way for everybody.”
Cataldo anticipates some skeptics may question why a museum is getting involved in promoting civic engagement. But “We Are for Freedoms,” she said, dovetails perfectly with the Currier’s mission statement: “Focused on art, centered in community and committed to inspire.”
“As a museum, we firmly believe in the freedom of expression, and that art has the power to move people,” she said.
The state arts council’s Lupi said the new Currier exhibit is timely. “It’s very important to talk about these freedoms and what they mean to us today and how we can preserve them,” she said. ”To do that through art is a way to level the playing field, so that everyone can participate.”
“We Are For Freedoms” is on exhibit through March 1. For details go to Currier.org.