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Can contemporary art help revitalize rural America?

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The new $65M expansion of MASS MoCA, a trailblazing art center, has shown how creative capital can be an economic engine

An aerial drone photo of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams taken last year.
Grace Clark

“We’re trying to achieve nirvana.”

When Joseph Thompson, the director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), describes the scale, scope, and vision behind his institution, he isn’t just adopting the aggrandizing language of the art world. MASS MoCA’s campus, and its new facility, is colossal in every sense of the word.

Located in North Adams, an old mill town in the Berkshires region of Western Massachusetts, MASS MoCA has been open to the public since 1999—and, this past weekend, it doubled its exhibition space with a long-awaited expansion that completes a circuitous path through the entire facility.

The now-complete Building 6 is a game-changer in terms of square footage alone: three floors, an acre each, roomy enough to hold multiple site-specific James Turrell installations, say, or a 15-ton marble carving by Louise Bourgeois. Jason Forney of Bruner/Cott Associates, the renovation architect—who helped redesign the mammoth former factory space—described the finished product as more landscape than building. The addition gives the museum more exhibition space than any venue in the country.

The Prow at MASS MoCA.
Douglas Mason

Bisected by a towering, 20-foot-wide light well, the building and its massive footprint lets MASS MoCA display contemporary art in a way other institutions can’t (it’s about “deep dives, deep installations, and long timelines,” according to Thompson). New York avant-garde musician, composer, and painter Laurie Anderson has her own working studio and archive. The aforementioned 15-ton statue by the late French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois, which required a wall to be knocked out during installation, is one of the smaller displays.

Perhaps the most exciting reveal is a new a collection of seven full-scale works by light artist James Turrell—the largest collection of his work in the world, including a two-story topographic map of his forthcoming Roden Crater project. That list barely covers half of what’s on display.

Building 6 sits on a peninsula within the MASS MoCA campus, at the point where two branches of the Hoosic River split. Nestled between the two tributaries, it looks like the prow of a ship.

This is a ship that, for many decades, was the economic engine of North Adams. Built in the mid-19th century for Arnold Print Works, the facility once made uniforms for the Union Army and then assembled parts for Sprague Electric until the factory closed in 1985, a shock still evident today.

Thompson and his team began a masterplan of the Mass MOCA site in 1986, but it took over a decade to raise the necessary funds for a renovation and public opening. The campus was reborn as a contemporary arts museum in 1999; ever since, MASS MoCA has been touted as a way to get the city back above water.

MASS MoCA has undeniably made a difference in the region’s economy. According to a 2015 study compiled by economist Stephen Sheppard, who works at nearby Williams College, MASS MoCA added roughly $34.4 million to the local economy that year, generating 383 jobs. With the new expansion receiving national press, and a series of community economic programs in place to capitalize on the buzz, this summer may showcase just how much the museum can and does mean to North Adams and the region.

But in a period of economic anxiety and hand-wringing over how to rebuild rural economies, is contemporary art enough? Despite the impressive stats about the size and scope of the building, for many in the community, only one number matters. More than 4,500 employees worked at the Sprague plant during its peak. The MASS MoCA staff and other businesses on the campus employ one-tenth as many today.

But for many supporters, the idea that the good old days will return is a false narrative. Karen Hopkins, who helped open the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a transformative neighborhood art center, now consults with MASS MoCA and the local government in North Adams to help design programs to further the museum’s potential as an economic catalyst. Times have changed, she says, and it’s time to embrace solutions that work today.

“If the area was able to... maintain a factory, it would have,” she says. “The world has changed, and global enterprise has caused so many town to struggle economically. What are the things that can revitalize it in a 21st-century context?

Nick Cave’s sprawling “Until” exhibition, on display at MASS MoCA’s football field-sized space, exemplifies the institution’s focus on huge, open-ended works.
Grace Clark

Building 6, in many ways, is a culmination of the ideas that Thompson and others have been pushing since the 1980s. Get outside of the typical white-wall gallery experience, partner with artists to create large-scale works that will be owned by the artists (not the museum), and display them in massive, unique spaces. A permanent display of drawings by artist Sol LeWitt, which opened in 2008 and set that standard for future exhibitions, takes up three stories and 27,000 square feet.

Despite its ambition, MASS MoCA, which now takes up 26 buildings on 16 acres in the center of North Adams, and draws 160,000 visitors a year, has always considered itself a key part of the community, not an ivory tower that stands apart.

According to Forney, the architect from Bruner/Cott—which has worked on MASS MoCA since the ’80s—the plan since day one has been to make the industrial campus function as the center of the community. The campus blends old and new, with faded walls of brick and wood, a rough-hewn, hand-built interior, and the “ghost” architecture pointing to the building’s former life as a factory. (Check out the pink and blue bathrooms still demarcated on the walls of the newly built central stairwell and atrium.) At the prow—a double-height space adorned with a huge watercolor painting of the industrial interior—visitors can gaze at the channels of the Hoosic River and see small homes perched on the green hillsides.

A pre-installation view of the light well that bisects Building 6, MASS MoCA’s new addition, which adds 130,000 square feet of space.
Douglas Mason

Between the light well and seemingly endless rows of windows, all patched panes filled with alternating shades of white, brown, and green, the space is bathed in light. Hundreds of support columns have been rearranged inside to create long, open horizontal spaces, islands within the structure for display and contemplation. The exhibits have space to breathe; a massive display of Jenny Holzer’s paintings of declassified and sensitive government documents, including emails about torture, look like a book galley spread writ large.

“This is a preservation project in a way, but it’s not,” he says. “It’s not about preserving each brick and column and window. It’s about preserving the spirit, and not being afraid to make changes where we need to in order to make this a world-class art museum.”

“Maintaining the spirit, but making changes” could double for the economic blueprint of the institution. Thompson envisioned the campus as an economic driver, and has been pushing the idea for 30 years in tandem with his drive to open the museum. “We’re deeply interwoven into the community,” he says, “but it’s complicated.”

Hall Art Foundation building at MASS MoCA, designed by Bill Katz and Alex Haviland.
Arthur Evans

As it has slowly expanded over nearly two decades, MASS MoCA has become a center for entrepreneurship, business, and the performing arts, again using its unprecedented size to do something different. By hosting a series of music festivals within its courtyard and adjoining lawn—such as Solid Sound, a music and arts festival curated by Wilco; Bang on a Can, which features experimental music and rock; and FreshGrass, a local bluegrass festival—the museum made North Adams a center for music tourism.

MASS MoCA also rents out space on campus to local business as a sort of pseudo-endowment, providing homes for businesses, such as Excelsior Printing and Bright Ideas Brewing, just a few steps off of Main Street.

“There’s a healthy diversity in the economy now,” Thompson says. “MASS MoCA isn’t one thing. We’re a museum that attracts a lot of business. There are 36 businesses on campus, including publishing, law, and medical, that employ 300 people. Their rent goes to programming and the operating budget, which hopefully draws more attention to the town. We hope it’s a virtuous cycle.”

According to Eric Kerns, co-founder and manager of Bright Ideas, which opened last year, there are obvious reasons to be near such a tourist magnet. The new community tap room just released a brew called B6, a American pale ale-IPA hybrid, specifically made to be drinkable all day during summer festivals. But the space also connects them to the neighborhood.

“Our building and business touch Marshall Street and North Adams,” Kerns says. “You only have to walk 60 feet onto the campus to have a beer. Our base is North Adams residents, and they don’t shy away from coming here when the museum is busy.”

Aerial view of MASS MoCA campus and nearby Mount Greylock.
Grace Clark

North Adams was badly beaten up by the slow move from manufacturing to a postindustrial economy, but it’s still in the Berkshires, a region people associate with arts and culture. For 120 years, over five or six generations, families could rest assured that they’d be taken care of and get a job in the mill, says Thompson. And those days are gone.

Today, in a more fast-moving economy, there are a lot of new small businesses, but the economic impact of MASS MoCA is orders of magnitude different than an industrial factory. And the cultural divide between a contemporary art museum and a mill town has, as some said, led to a classic “town-and-gown” scenario, like those seen in college towns across the country.

Thompson says that, since MASS MoCA’s been open for 18 years, he can tell a cup-half-full story. Unemployment used to be seven times the state average, and now it’s down to 1.4 times the average. And new institutions, such as the Makerspace Makers’ Mill and LEVER, a enterprise development center, have become catalysts for small-business growth. Nearby, a pair of New York investors is in the midst of transforming Graylock Works, a local warehouse, into an events space and artisanal food production facility.

Building 6 blends old and new, with faded walls of brick and wood, a rough-hewn, hand-built interior, and the “ghost” architecture pointing to the building’s former life as a factory.
Douglas Mason

But Thompson admits change is a slow, generational process. When he started 30 years ago, he optimistically thought gentrification would be the problem now. But that’s far from the top of the local list of worries. Storefront occupancy has tripled, but one in four stores downtown is still empty. Unemployment is still a factor, and the real estate market hasn’t rebounded. In a city built for more than 20,000, only 13,000 live here today.

“Everyone thought economic activity would be more obvious and on a larger scale,” says communications director Jodi Joseph, who grew up in the North Adams area. The $25 million state grant to embark upon the restoration of Building 6 came in 2014, just a few weeks before the North Adams Regional Hospital, an important health care center for the region’s elderly population and an employer that provided 500 jobs in the region, closed its doors.

A great museum that makes a local connection in a meaningful, programmatic way is one thing, say Hopkins. Impacting the community and the economy in a way that benefits everyone is something quite a bit more complicated.

MASS MoCA hopes the expanded physical footprint also increases its economic footprint. With the new additions in Building 6, it would take a four-mile walk for visitors to see all the art on campus, according to Joseph. Many in North Adams hope that this expansion, and the extra attention it brings, turns day-trippers into overnighters.

A view of North Adams from Building 6.
Jason Reinhold

To help multiply the impact of MASS MoCA traffic, the city and museum have collaborated on the North Adams Exchange, a public-private program to connect the museum and Main Street. New signage, maps, and promotions help push local businesses to arts-inspired visitors. Walking paths leading to the museums, as well as a bike share, help open up the community.

This summer, a series of sound sculptures will be placed throughout the city, and a new light installation by the Chicago group Luftwerk—a series of four church steeples in North Adams, as well as the museum’s clocktower, will be lit up in a light display that repeats a Thoreau poem in Morse Code—hope to bring more artwork into the community.

“This summer is MASS MoCA 2.0 in terms of the museum’s impact,” says Hopkins. “It’s an optimal moment to try and activate and connect the main street.”

Entrepreneurs who have come to town or set up shop in North Adams say there’s definitely a museum effect: “There’s historically been a bit of a dichotomy between North Adams and MASS MoCA,” says Kerns. Kern’s co-founder in the brewery, Orion Howard, a former board member, remembers a discussion about needing to add a less frilly business on campus. A taproom fit the bill, and as Kerns put it, “has been the first real place in the town you can have a young couple from Williamsburg talk with North Adams firefighters.”

The tap room at Bright Ideas Brewing on the MASS MoCA campus.
Bright Ideas Brewing

Mitchell Bresett, whose father was a contractor in the South Berkshire area, opened up B&B Micro Manufacturing last year to construct tiny homes. Inside their factory in the nearby Windsor Mill, another converted industrial building a few blocks from the museum campus, his staff of 25 are building complete homes in three weeks or less.

“MASS MoCA has brought so many people,” he says. “By midday, you can’t find a parking spot. [And] this used to be a place to drive through.”

The expansion isn’t all that’s coming to North Adams. A number of high-profile projects may build upon the city’s growing reputation as a cultural center. John Stirratt, bassist in the band Wilco, has teamed up with a developer to invest $8 million to turn an abandoned ’50s motor lodge, the Redwood Motel, into TOURISTS, a new resort designed by Lake | Flato Architects with landscape design by Reed Hilderbrand. And a number of proposed museum projects in the region, including the Museum of Time, a Motorcycle Museum, and the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum, would continue to add to the area’s cultural capital.

“Over the years, it’s been interesting to see the reluctant acknowledgement that this is the future, that it’s not going to be a factory again,” says Kerns. “Now, more than ever, old North Adams is desperate to connect with the new North Adams.”

New businesses have given Kerns the most cause for his current optimism. People are coming in and buying real estate, and developers, makers, and new entrepreneurs are not only making an effort, but choosing to do it here.

“Sprague closed 30 years ago, and there has to be a point of public acknowledgement that that isn’t coming back,” he says. “And this isn’t a problem unique to North Adams. I can list 15 cities or towns within an hour’s drive with the same issue. And they don’t have a MASS MoCA.”