There’s often a feeling that beckons you to linger when you’re in a museum. It asks you to slow down, to take it all in.
At the new MassArt Art Museum — or MAAM — on a recent morning, Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos swayed to a soft Cape Verdean ballad beneath her latest massive sculpture.
Located in the center of MassArt's campus, this new museum has its grand opening Saturday. MAAM is free to the public and will show rotating exhibits of contemporary art. A cohort of MassArt students will learn the business of maintaining this 15,000 square foot space.
Vasconcelos' inaugural artwork for MAAM is an inflated fabric creature that hangs from the 37-foot-high ceiling. Air is air pumped into its 22 sprawling limbs made of colorful textiles from places like Mozambique.
“It can be related to a plant, can be related to an animal, can be related to a monster, can be related to many things,” Vasconcelos said of her work. “It’s kind of a magical thing. It's nothing, really and it connects you with what you have inside of you, your knowledge, your roots, your culture, your family, the way you look into nature."
She's displayed these monumental site-specific installations in cities across the world, from Tel Aviv to Bilbao, paying homage to inspiring women.
"So every place that I'm asked to do one of these pieces, they need to be connected with people that in a way changed their identity and they changed their way of living, and in a way, they were iconic to the history,” Vasconcelos said.
Vasconcelos’ series of Valkyries, as she calls them, are inspired by these warrior goddesses of Norse mythology who carry heroes from the battlefield once they’re slain to Valhalla.
Some of her creations are ferocious. This one, she said, has a tenderness.
It took more than six month to put together and sew the fabrics by hand. Parts are embroidered, while others resemble the scales of a sea creature.
In her first solo show in the U.S., the artist honors the life of enslaved woman Elizabeth “MumBet” Freemen, who sued for her freedom in 1781. Her case eventually helped make slavery illegal in Massachusetts.
Museum Director Lisa Tung says Vasconcelos created this piece called “Valkyrie Mumbet" specifically for this space.
"For the first show, I really, really wanted an artist whose work could be completely suspended,” Tung said. “I wanted the viewer to have their eyes drawn upward. I didn't want anything on the floor because lots of museums can put things on the floor. I wanted something special, something 'wow.'"
Over more than two decades, Tung has gone from curator to museum executive director. As we walk through the museum, Tung said to reach this moment took time, dedication and raising more than $12 million to renovate.
"We knew that we did not want to charge a ticket at the door or charge for membership. So we decided to fundraise everything ourselves,” Tung said. “And with the help of foundations and also private donations, we were able to make our goal."
To stay nimble and keep costs down, MAAM is a non-collecting museum. This means it will not have a permanent collection.
Tung has seen this space evolve from the college’s gallery with no elevator and no street entrance, no bathrooms or other amenities. They couldn’t open in the summer because of the heat. Now, she looks forward to inviting the public into this teaching museum.
Downstairs, Mass Art students hang captions for an exhibition focused on video games called “Game Changers: Video Games & Contemporary Art."
There are games that explore Native American beliefs, a game where a black woman swats the hands of white women trying to touch her hair, and even one interactive experience at Thoreau’s Walden Pond. The point there is to do as little as possible, says Curator Darci Hanna.
“If you actually work too hard in the game. The music will fade out and the lights dim a little bit. So it actually encourages you to kind of slow down your pace,” Hanna said. “You can pick up books that you find and you can read your letters. And that actually increases your inspiration. And that's part of what makes you a healthy and whole person within the game. So you have to rest. You have to work. You have to find food and shelter.”
Tung says that she’s been working around the clock preparing for the grand opening. She wants the work to surprise, to delight, and most importantly to be accessible to anyone that comes through those doors.
"I want people to experience contemporary art in a fun way. I don't want them to be intimidated or feel like museums aren't for them. Museums are for everyone, especially a free museum,” Tung said. “We are a public good. And we want you to come in. We want you to feel welcome. We want you to feel like this is your place."
A place where you can take time out of your day and contemplate art.
MAAM is located at 621 Huntington Ave, Boston, MA 02115 and opens to the public tomorrow. Admission is free.
This segment aired on February 21, 2020.