The Berkshire region enjoys a long-established reputation as a summertime cultural destination for the performing arts; just mention “the Berkshires” and the words Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, and Williamstown Theatre Festival spring from the culturati’s lips. Less broadly recognized is the region’s abundance of similarly world-class visual art. Leslie Ferrin and Sienna Patti, are working to change that.

Based, respectively, at Ferrin Gallery in Pittsfield and Sienna Gallery in Lenox, both gallerists enjoy an international reputation in their particular fields of expertise—studio ceramics for Ferrin and contemporary art jewelry for Patti. Three years ago, they stretched their roles to create a much broader canvas—to borrow from the painterly—by forming ArtBerkshires.

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Ferrin explains; “Sienna and I came up with the idea to provide experiences that put the work we exhibit in the galleries into a broader context, so they’d gain a deeper understanding of it.” Cultural tourism is a given in the Berkshires, especially those nighttime dance, theater, and music performances, says Ferrin. During the day, visitors tend to have more free time, and are eager to explore the area. When they stop into the galleries, they often ask for recommendations about other places to see art or where to dine.

Patti elaborates, “These amazing institutions, these fascinating artists are all here, but the visual arts gems haven’t been put together innovatively. Essentially, we’ve taken on the role of cultural curators…” with ArtBerkshires. Ferrin adds, “This series of contemporary visual arts events is designed to appeal to the seasonal resident, the cultural tourist, and someone who doesn’t want to visit the Berkshires for Tanglewood alone.” In its previous two summers, ArtBerkshires worked with the themes Modern Style and Studio Craft, and Decadence and Decay. “This year’s theme is COVET,” says Ferrin, “because it offers a way to connect the dots between history and contemporary visual arts.”

Each dot—that is, each event—lets viewers see more than they could on their own. That’s because Ferrin and Patti have embarked upon ambitious collaborations with the region’s major museums, other galleries, and historic homes, as well as restaurants and hotels, plus artists both internationally known and locally based. The thought-provoking series of events, sprinkled throughout July and August, spans the Berkshires. Each event offers up a curator and a COVET artist; some include a veritable panel of experts. Beyond seeing art, participants can ask questions, glean the insiders’ view, and meet others with similar interests.

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The series starts this week with “MEET ME AT” behind-the-scenes tours at MASS MoCA on Thursday, July 19; Hancock Shaker Village on Friday, July 20; and Berkshire Museum on Saturday, July 21. COVET exhibitions featuring works by over 30 artists are now open at the two galleries. Ferrin’s DISH + DINE events brings the cultural conversation to the table, with salon-style dinners featuring local cuisine by renowned area restaurants—this Friday it’s Mezze—served on tableware created by Ferrin ceramists, who will in be attendance along with other gallery artists to discuss the work. And that’s just a few of the events that comprise COVET’s opening weekend.

With ArtBerkshires, Ferrin and Patti have roped in virtually every cultural leader and institution in the Berkshires and a few beyond, including Noor Al Suwaidi of the United Arab Emirates and Bembol dela Cruz of the Philippines, Art Omi resident artists who have extended their stay in the region though IS 183 Art School of the Berkshires’ Berkshire Residency Exchange. In addition to setting up shop in pop-up studios, they’ll be involved in a three-week project with at-risk students in Pittsfield’s Public School District’s summer transition program, Bridge 2o12. The students and artists will participate in an iCOVET brunch and benefit exhibition for IS183’s programming at Stonover Farm’s Barn Gallery in Lenox on July 29th.

The theme COVET isn’t intended solely for viewers; Ferrin encouraged her artists to draw inspiration from the word. To hear Ferrin talk—with excitement and animation—about how she forges connections between curators and contemporary artists to interact over historic work in reflective ways is to appreciate her artistry. She understands how to use connectivity—between people, across disciplines and media—to push conversations about art—and even to push the art itself. Inspired by the COVET theme, artists had the opportunity respond to historic work though the creation of new work. She champions the idea that covetousness reaches beyond wanting to own something; for a curator or collector, she says, “Covetousness might be about putting pieces together in order to see them anew. For an artist, it might be about a springboard from the old to create new work.”

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John Singer Sargent’s 1882 painting “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” (collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), at right, inspired Bill Wright’s photograph “Dependence.” Wright will discuss his work for COVET on Sunday, July 22, at Sienna Gallery.

Though the entire COVET schedule is mind-boggling, Ferrin and Patti hope that by sharing the various insiders’ perspectives, the program will leave participants with a newfound sense of the region. They’re betting this type of cultural tourism will draw the kind of people who have overlooked the Berkshires as a visual-arts-oriented destination. And should some good, old coveting lead to sales? Of course, that’s Ferrin and Patti’s business. –Sarah Buttenwieser

COVET: A program of ArtBerkshires
From Thursday, July 19 through Friday, August 17
At various museums, galleries, historic sites, and other venues throughout Berkshire County