MASS MoCA Celebrates

32 Years from Thought to Finish

By: - May 29, 2017

On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, from dawn to dusk, there were long lines and a constant stream of visitors. There may have been some 6,000 during the day and another 10,000 attended the rock concert by Cake on MASS MoCA's Joe Thompson Field.

Many artists and locals who have followed the saga for some three plus decades were pinching themselves in states of disbelief.

It was great fun to see so many friends and neighbors as well as all of those strangers.

For most of us who liked the idea, but thought of it as a tantalizing longshot, there was the joy of celebrating a magnificent dream come true.

It started with an eureka moment in 1985 when then Williams College Art Museum director, Tom Krens, was in Europe and encountered exhibitions in raw industrial spaces.

Looking around there were a number of abandoned factories in Northern Berkshire County. They were the deteriorating dinosaurs of the 19th century Industrial Revolution.

In its heyday there were three shifts and some 4,000 employees at Arnold Printworks which morphed into Sprague Electric. There was a gradual decline then the factory closed and North Adams went belly up. Somewhere along the line Urban Removal, for thirty pieces of silver, destroyed half the city.

North Adams was in the toilet, in 1986, when Krens approached Mayor John Barrett III about the potential to develop a contemporary art museum.

Initially, Krens thought somewhat modestly about stand alone mill buildings like the Windsor, Eclipse and Beaver mills.

Then they went for the whole enchilada with the vast Sprague campus.

What followed was the epic struggle of selling the idea to some seven governors starting with democrat Michael Dukakis. As one of his last acts he got a bill passed but it would be years before the project saw any real money. There were fits and starts until the museum actually opened in 1999.

 In 1988 Krens left Williams and MASS MoCA to become director of the New York Guggenheim. There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then but in the past couple of years Krens has floated back through town with more big ideas.

He has plans to buy and revamp Heritage State Park, create a museum for trains, clocks and architecture, as well as getting the Mohawk Theatre back up and running. Up the road, along what is being dubbed as a cultural corridor, he has eyes on building a for profit, contemporary art museum next to the expanded and upgraded puddle hopper airport.

On August 2, 1988 Joe Thompson, a Krens understudy at Williams and Michael Govan was the other, was named founding director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

As an ersatz Sisyphus it was now Thompson's task to start pushing the rock up the hill.

Even  with a skeletal staff there was a weekly challenge just to meet payroll.

Most recently, in addition to $25 million from the state, he had been tasked to raise another $45 million for the nearly completed Phase Three development. Almost casually he mentions that there is another $10 million to go.

There are still odds and ends not just to finish Phase Three but other projects. Neighboring Clark Art Institute has yet to decide what to do with the prime building it has leased for 99 years on the MoCA campus. The museum has also inched into North Adams real estate securing contiguous properties as well as off campus buildings for housing fellows, artists, guests and administration.

It would be nice, eventually, to endow the position of director as well as those of senior curators. It's what major museums do. In that regard MoCA is acting more and more like a grownup.

That includes Thompson himself who was well, just a kid, those 30 odd years ago when MoCA was just an impossible dream.

Will he eventually retire from MoCA? His fellow Krens understudy, Govan, ran the similar factory museum DIA Beacon and then moved on as director of the major LA County Museum of Art. Now edging past mid career will Thompson make a similar career move before it is too late?

Of course, none of this would have been possible without Mayor John Barrett III.

Just ask him.

He has picked up speaker's fees telling the tale of how he saved North Adams.

But let's not be distracted by politics.

For now there is the exhilarating but exhausting challenge of navigating some 4.5 miles of art.

Even with the featured, widely celebrated artists much that's on view is good but not great.

That's an issue, not just for MASS MoCA, but contemporary art in general.

It's why a lot of folks hereabouts are looking forward to the trains and clocks museums.

Everyone loves trains.