Meet Norton Owen, Keeper of the Archives at Jacob’s Pillow

February 16, 2022

Norton Owen, a treasured icon of Jacob’s Pillow, has been associated with the festival since 1976. In his current position as director of preservation, he oversees exhibitions, the growing online resource Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive, PillowTalks, pre- and post-show lectures, and film programs. Owen describes his motto as having “one eye looking backward and one eye on what’s happening currently.”

His Favorite Part of His Role

“What I value most about the job is the one-on-one experience. When someone walks through the door, we have a chance to engage with them. There are so many ways to pique interest. Anyone of any age can enjoy the archives.”

Blake’s Barn at Jacob’s Pillow houses special exhibitions curated by Owen and his team each year. Grace Landefeld, Courtesy Owen.

Why Archives Are Essential

“If we only attend to what’s happening now, that’s a narrow universe. I remember when I was a young dancer performing Doris Humphrey’s The Shakers. I wondered, ‘Who were the Shakers?’ We offer ways to branch out, find the next step and open up a whole new world. The past and the present are in dialogue with each other, which makes it more dynamic.”

How He Curates The Programming

“Of course, we look at who is on campus in selecting PillowTalks, but what I am most proud of is when we have included people who have no Pillow history, like Anna Halprin and Jacques d’Amboise. Once, when Merce Cunningham Dance Company had not been here for a while, we brought Merce Cunningham in to talk about his book Other Animals.”

Blake’s Barn at Jacob’s Pillow houses special exhibitions curated by Owen and his team each year. Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Owen

“We also do shows that do not relate to programming, like photographers Lois Greenfield or Annie Leibovitz. Some we plan for years, but other times we need to be agile, like this past year, which only solidified after the Doris Duke Theatre burned. And in the process of planning the Ted Shawn Theatre renovations, it seemed natural that we would want to look at the performance spaces, so we put together ‘Build Me a Theater,’ an exhibit which included artifacts and images from the Ted Shawn Theatre and Doris Duke Theatre.”

“For Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive, it’s a team approach when it comes to assigning essays, selecting a video clip, designing a playlist or a podcast. Associate archivist Patsy Gay, PillowVoices podcast project director Jennifer Edwards and the video team all help.”

“The essays are opportunities to share some of the archival treasures we have: photos, programs, letters, etc. Whatever degree we can re-create the synergy online that people feel when they walk into the archive, that’s part of our goal.”