World-Class Art In Working-Class Mass.: MASS MoCA's Cultural Impact

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At MASS MoCA, size doesn't matter. Hulking sculptures and ceiling-high video installations honor the museum's 150,000 square feet of gallery space. Joseph Thompson, MASS MoCA's director, said they also honor the museum's mission. "It's not like going to a show and standing in the middle of a gallery and seeing 20 things on the wall," he said. "It's often a one-to-one experience — you walk up into a gallery and you're in a work of art."


MASS MoCA has been called the largest contemporary art museum in the world. It opened in North Adams 10 years ago this summer, promising to exhibit edgy, large-scale spectacles that would attract the attention of artists, critics and audiences the world over. MASS MoCA's presence would also transform the working-class Berkshire town into an arts mecca.

Many of the displayed works are by high-profile artists who've shown at the world's top museums. Right now, a retrospective of 100 wall-drawings by conceptual artist Sol LeWitt fills 25,000 square feet at MoCA. Time Magazine rated it "the top museum exhibition of 2008," ahead of shows at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It will be up and open to the public for 25 years years.

Having an institution like MASS MoCA boosts Massachusetts' cultural landscape, according to Nick Capasso, senior curator at the DeCordova Museum, just outside Boston. "What they really add to the national cultural community is the ability to show extremely large, extremely extensive, extremely involved works of contemporary art that really cannot be realized or adequately presented anywhere else," he said.

Take, for instance, an industrial-sized piece called "The Knitting Machine" by Providence-based sculptor Dave Cole. He took two excavators, or giant digging machines, then removed the shovels and replaced them with telephone poles. He used the machine to knit a giant American flag. Cole said it's not the kind of thing an artist can pull-off at any museum. "MASS MoCA is the kind of place that will not only allow something big and crazy to happen, but will actually encourage it," he said.

Cole sees MASS MoCA as a "Shangri-La" of contemporary art in the Berkshires, but it hasn't always been pure artistic bliss at the museum. Two years ago, MASS MoCA went to federal court over a legal dispute with Swiss artist Christoph Buchel. Buchel abandoned his nearly-finished installation, "Training Ground for Democracy," after months of planning and prep work.

It was the size of a football field, and featured an actual movie theater, cargo containers and an entire house. The artist and the museum fought over the show's destiny. Against Buchel's wishes MASS MoCA won the right to show the incomplete installation to the public, but ultimately dismantled it instead. Director Joseph Thompson regrets what he calls a very expensive snafu. "Yeah, that nearly put us out of business," he said. But it also put MASS MoCA into the international press, because the conflict was unprecedented in the museum world.

You can see MASS MoCA's impact on artists in North Adams, too.

Rich Remsberg, an experimental filmmaker and archivist, lives and works at the Eclipse Mill, a former textile building that was converted into 40 artist lofts five years ago. He and his wife moved to North Adams from Indiana after hearing the town was experiencing an cultural renaissance following MASS MoCA's opening.

But Remsberg said it's moving a bit slower than he was led to believe." "No one's lying," he said, "but you can get an impression that there's more happening than there is."


That said, Remsberg is very satisfied with what is happening in North Adams. He credits MASS MoCA for being an artistic anchor, and said if the museum wasn't here he and his wife would've moved to Brooklyn.

A tight-knit community of working artists drives the creative scene here, according to John Mitchell, the arts and entertainment editor at the local paper, The North Adams Transcript. Mitchell moved here from Somerville 12 years ago. At the time, the big joke was you could get a house in North Adams for the price of a car.

But now, he said, the town is transformed, with more young people, more restaurants, more live music and more than 20 art galleries. "You know it's totally different," Mitchell said. "The downtown still has a ways to go, but it's not as dead as it was when we first came here. You look around and you feel a lot more hopeful."

MASS MoCA also hopes to nurture future generations of museum-goers. On a recent weekday, students from Reed Middle School in nearby Pittsfield piled into a gallery for a tour.

Seventh-grader Jacob Novic stared at a wall-like sculpture made of crumbled concrete and twisted metal. And he had questions. "When I first saw it, I was thinking, 'What is that, why is it there, is it trash?' " he said. But after the museum's education director described the piece and the artist, "I really started thinking about it and it's very interesting, people's perspective on life," Novic said.

Novic admitted he hadn't been to many art museums, and said he can't wait to tell his parents about the odd and amazing things he saw on his trip to MASS MoCA. For the past 10 years, this eye-popping effect is exactly what MASS MoCA has strived to achieve, both here in North Adams, and beyond.

This is the second of two reports on the financial and cultural impact of MASS MoCA in the last decade. Click here to listen to the first.

This program aired on July 7, 2009.

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Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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