Manchester, New Hampshire Road Trip

Wil Barnet

“Let’s go to Manchester, New Hampshire!” Said no one you know. Ever. It may one of the best-kept secrets in all of New England. Most people see this city of 110,000—if at all—as they zip past on the interstates, the Merrimack River fronting red brick corridors that look like tombstones to bygone factory work. Those are what’s left of the Amoskeag Corporation, a complex of textile mills that once made Manchester the largest manufacturing city in the Western world—even bigger than its English namesake.

Until recently you’d be right to think of Manchester without the Amoskeag as akin to New Bedford without fishing, Holyoke without paper mils, Pittsfield without GE, or Lawrence without woolens. There’s actually more going on than you’d think. Segways are built there, you can find good French-Canadian bakeries, and several colleges keep things lively. The city has a new AA baseball stadium, AHL hockey, a reviving Lumberyard retail/restaurant area, and affordable housing. But the biggest thing that gives it a leg up on other deindustrialized cities is a dynamic cultural heritage anchored by the Currier Museum of Art, which is truly an underappreciated gem.

The Currier often launches creative special exhibitions, but let’s take a look at its permanent collection. First of all, the Currier also administers tours of the nearby Zimmerman House, a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian home that was supposed to be Wright’s foray into affordable middle-class housing. You’d really have to stretch the definitions of affordable and middle class to take up residency in one of these, but it’s always enlightening to consider Wright’s mercurial vision.

Childe Hassam
The museum proper intrigues by allowing one to sample great art rather than gorging upon it. It holds about 13,000 works altogether and when you consider that Boston’s venerable Museum of Fine Arts holds over 346,000, you can readily imagine that the Currier is less likely to cause sensory overload. (All museums display only a small percentage of their works at a time.) In other words, if you want to see a few Impressionists, there’s a smattering of Monets, Pissarros, and Hassams—not entire wings of the museum.

The Currier opened its doors in 1929, just as Manchester’s industrial might was peaking and about to collapse. In practical terms, it means that the Currier’s strength lies with twentieth-century art—Ash Can painting, precisionism, surrealism, abstract expressionism…. A moody Charles Sheeler of the Amoskeag mils is one of my favorites as it embodies both Manchester’s former might and portents. I also like Lyonel Feiniger’s The Mill in Spring as we can see in it both where painting has been and how new thoughts on line, shape, and space herald new ways of filling a canvas. They light the path to new movements embodied in works such as Will Barnet’s The Aawkening, Michael Mazur’s Painted Edge, or the colors and textured blocks of Mark Rothko.


Museums like the Currier slow us down so we can find small treasures. Even when you stumble upon an O’Keeffe, a Hartley, or a Sargent, they are generally not works you’ve seen in art books and on coffee mugs! Among my favorites are works from the underappreciated Arthur Dove, a dreamy Maxfield Parrish, a simple Salvador Dali, and an amusing work from O. Louis Guglielmi titled Sisters of Charity. Look carefully; the only word we can trust in that title is “of.”

Guglielmi is not an artist I knew and discovery is the great fun of the Currier. Another new one for me was Edwin Sheirer. His ceramics, textiles, carvings, and paintings were inspired by tribal art, myth, whimsy, and imagination—wells from which Modernists often drew.  

Breathe deeply. You can say it. “Let’s go to Manchester, New Hampshire!” I predict that as you enjoy a cup of coffee in its laidback courtyard you’ll wonder why it took you so long to discover it.

Rob Weir

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