NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art was already pretty darn huge when it opened 18 years ago with 90,000 square feet of exhibition space in a re-purposed, 19th-century mill complex in North Adams.
Its exhibition girth grew even more in 2008 when the institution renovated what's known as Building 7 to display floors filled with large-scale wall drawings by the late conceptual artist Sol LeWitt. Now, as part of the museum’s ongoing expansion and mission, MASS MoCA’s gallery capacity is doubling with the debut of Building 6 which opens Sunday.
We took a tour to find out more about how this beautiful, big building — and the big works by big-name artists inside -- are part of the museum's long-term strategy to boost the local economy.
The Challenge Of Transformation
If you haven’t been to MASS MoCA believe me when I say it really is gigantic. Most visitors will pass through mammoth art installations in Building 5 — which is a football field in length — to gain entry to the new Building 6.
"Even though it’s doubling our exhibition footprint, I’ll eat my hat if people don’t think that we’ve quadrupled," museum director Joseph Thompson told me as we passed through a stunning installation by artist Nick Cave on our way through Building 5 to MASS MoCA's latest renovation, "because you take these big, long circulation paths through."
He wasn't kidding. Before I had the chance to ask about the distance one would have to walk to see all of Building 6 Thompson quantified, "We had an intern go walk the perimeter of every single gallery, as if they were the most diligent museum visitor in the world — missing nothing — and it clocked in at a little over 4 miles."
Creating a sense of direction inside this vast structure has been architect Simeon Bruner's job.
"It's pretty daunting to walk through a building of this scale," he mused, "and that's our issue, really, to maintain orientation and create excitement as you discover things around the corner."
GPS will be available, and useful, according to Bruner, who is the founding principal of the Cambridge firm Bruner/Cott. Each of Building 6's lengthy, three floors spans an acre. The old mill and factory is irregularly shaped, with a pointed prow, like a ship. Its structure is supported by beefy, steel beams and lined with exposed bricks that rise up from warmer, maple flooring.
Bruner pointed to the line of rough-hewn wooden columns, saying there are 1,000 that don't quite line up. As you can imagine updating Building 6 has been architecturally challenging. But for him, also thrilling.
"If you stand here," he directed as we stood in the entryway, "you look at the atrium which draws you through here..." Then the architect added, "unfortunately, this exhibit blocks that. It’s the art getting in the way of the real art."
Bruner’s ribbing was playful. After all, he was talking about a vertical maze of prints in the middle of the room by the late, great American painter and graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg. But the architect's comment revealed a recurrent concern in the art museum design world: the risk that a new building or renovated space might compete with, or overwhelm, the artwork inside.
That's not a problem in Building 6, though, because the large, long-term art installations and the raw but majestic architecture were designed for each other and with each other. They evolved together, in tandem, as a result of enduring relationships between MASS MoCA and artists including Rauschenberg, experimental multimedia artist Laurie Anderson, sculptor Louise Bourgeois, and light, text and cross-genre explorer Jenny Holzer.
Each of these artists, or their representatives, hold novel lease agreements to occupy galleries in the museum, ranging from 15 to 25 years. This innovative model was first employed with the estate of Sol LeWitt and Yale University, according to Thompson. "It was like a light bulb went off," he said.
Then Thompson led us down a wide stairway to a darkened room custom-designed around a glowing, pinky-purple diamond of light that appeared to be either floating in space or poking out of the wall.
"So this is the world of James Turrell," Thompson introduced, "it's a long term — really long term — 25-year temporary exhibition called, 'Into the Light.' "
At other museums, visitors have endured long lines to experience Turrell’s mind-blowing pieces. There are nine at MASS MoCA that use light and dark to mess with your perceptions. Each one unfolds in sleek, painstakingly honed rooms that take visitors to another dimension.
They're incredibly hard to describe and, in my mind, need to be experienced to be fully understood.
"Spaces that look to be you know 20, 30 or 40 feet deep are actually only two or three inches," Thompson explained, "and [Turrell] does the reverse too. He can make a plane of light feel for all the world like a screen or a scrim something that you would swear you can touch. And when you pass through them, when you go through the light or into the light, you find out that there's a space of vast dimension behind."
Anticipating Turrell's potential to draw crowds, MASS MoCA will be taking reservations for the first time in its 18-year existence. He and a lot of other people hope these ambitious installations, and the rest of Building 6, will entice visitors to stay in North Adams for longer stretches of time.
"Any time that we can convert a day trip or visit into an overnight, that's like attracting six new day-trippers," Thompson said. "It's just, you know, going deep, and extending their stay, and getting people to go downtown. That's really important to our mission and I think this will help."
Shifting North Adams' Economy
MASS MoCA’s mission isn’t just about exposing people to art. It’s also about helping North Adams shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. When one of the small city’s main employers, Sprague Electric, moved out of these buildings in the 1980s, the population dropped by thousands and unemployment rose to 15 percent.
Architect Simeon Bruner, who's been with working with MASS MoCA since it was first conceived in 1987, put it this way: "This is about building a museum of modern art. It's about renovating a historic mill building, and it's also about an economic catalyst for North Adams. And if you look what's happened, it's worked on all three levels."
It's worked — but not the way originally expected.
Since the beginning, the state has invested millions of dollars in the museum, totaling about $65 million so far, based in part on predictions about the economic benefits it would bring to North Adams. But Thompson said those projections were a bit off.
"We thought that about 90 percent of our visitors would come from afar. And when a visitor comes from afar every dollar that they spend gets counted as economic impact," Thompson explained. "In fact, however, about 25 percent of our visitors are local, or regional. You don’t get credit for that, so we had a slight deficit, with respect to the economic impact arising from pure destination tourism. On the other hand, that deficit was more than made up by the commercial tenants who occupy this site with us."
More than 30 businesses, including a brewery, rent space in the museum’s mill complex. The unique cultural-commercial model has helped sustain the institution's growth.
And, according to numbers crunched by Williams College, in 2015 MASS MoCA's economic impact was about $34 million, supporting 383 jobs. Thompson said attendance has grown steadily by 2-4 percent each year. About 165,000 visitors bought tickets in 2016.
But, he added, another surprise has been how much revenue and traffic is generated by the museum’s performing arts programs and music festivals, including the band Wilco’s Solid Sound, Freshgrass and Bang on a Can.
"Fifty percent of our human resources, financial resources, and emotional bandwidth go into the performing arts," the director said.
'Made Big Because It Had A Big Job To Do'
Up on the top floor of the new building, I met with Mark Stewart is one of MASS MoCA's contributing musicians — he also happens to be Paul Simon's music director. He was playing a 9-foot banjo made by local hero Gunnar Schonbeck. The former Bennington College professor, now-deceased, created a massive collection of giant instruments including a two-by-four xylophone and a Japanese-style Kōdō. Now, they'll be housed in Building 6.
"This place was made big because it had a big job to do," Stewart reflected, with a smile. "It had lots to do. And now it's been re-purposed, you know, ‘swords-to-plowshares.’ I mean, factory to an art space. Now it's celebrating the very human spirit that used to fill this with industry."
While MASS MoCA's trajectory hasn't gone exactly as planned, director Joseph Thompson is pleased. And he's full of ideas to link visitors to the larger cultural community in the Berkshires, including an impressive bike corridor that runs through Building 6. Thompson hopes it will ultimately connect North Adams to places like nearby Williamstown, where visitors can stop by the Clark Art Institute or the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Perhaps it will indeed become one more enticement for people from Boston and New York to make the three-hour drive to the small, unassuming city of North Adams in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts.
This article was originally published on May 25, 2017.
This segment aired on May 25, 2017.