The promise of MASS MoCA
The museum’s latest expansion is a hit, but its impact on the struggling town of North Adams remains a work in progress
Photographs by Michael Manning
TWO YOUNG MEN from Brooklyn tentatively inch down the hallway, holding onto a handrail because it’s so dark. They turn a corner and the room in front of them opens up, filled with intense light of different colors. They make their way to a bench and sit down, mesmerized by a large screen, the light source, at the front of the room. It’s one in a series of dazzling light compositions by the artist James Turrell in the new Building 6 at MASS MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.
“I really, really, really, really love it,” says Charles Quittner. “I walk in and the light just engulfs me.” His pal, Nick Giordane, is equally enthusiastic. “It’s primordial, electronic,” he says. “It’s fun.”
The new Building 6 is most definitely lots of fun, and drawing large crowds and rave reviews. It’s also validation of a vision that factory buildings once known for producing components for the atom bomb and lunar space missions can be repurposed as a home for art, drawing visitors from all over the country and world. The other part of that vision—that an art museum can be an economic catalyst for a declining mill town in the northwest corner of Massachusetts—is a work in progress.
Museum officials are sensitive to the issue. They secured a $150,000 grant from the Barr Foundation to develop ways to entice museum crowds downtown. And they are promoting Building 6 as a way to do just that. The theory is that with Building 6, MASS MoCA is now so big that visitors can’t get through it in a single day.
“We want to make it impossible for people to visit MASS MoCA and the northern Berkshires and to leave after a few hours or even a day,” says MASS MoCA’s founding director, Joseph Thompson. “We want them to take the time to stay and shop around town and buy two to three meals before heading back home.”
Marcia Halio, who drove up from Delaware with her husband to visit their daughter at Williams College in neighboring Williamstown, says she is very impressed by the level of art in Building 6. “This one is about social justice,” she says, staring at a piece featuring a gun rack mounted on the outside of a voting booth. The gun barrel is angled toward a would-be voter’s head. Halio says she and her husband plan to eat at the museum café on this visit, but maybe they’ll eat downtown on their next.
Thompson takes the long view. He is confident the museum will not only attract more tourists who will spend money in other areas of the city, but will act as a catalyst for other arts-related businesses that will call North Adams home. He says the shift from a manufacturing to an arts community is as much cultural as it is economic, and takes time. “I see this as a generational shift,” he says.
The grand plan for MASS MoCA has always been to create a synergistic relationship with its host city. Twenty years ago, MASS MoCA opened its doors with the help of $35 million in state funding and a promise to bring much-needed jobs and visitors to North Adams.
“Nobody got rich, but everyone did ok. And if you lost your job, you could get a new one tomorrow,” says Mayor Richard Alcombright, who grew up in North Adams.
In the 1970s, sales continued to rise for Sprague components, but profits sagged due to overseas competition. The company’s payroll, which supported 4,000 workers at its peak in the mid-1960s, started to decline over the next two decades and in 1985, the company finally shut its doors. Unemployment in North Adams soared as the last 2,000 workers were pink-slipped. Residents left in droves in search of jobs. Business in the city’s center, which had already suffered when several older, prominent buildings were bulldozed by the federal government’s urban renewal program, started to wane.
A year after Sprague shut its gates, Thomas Krens, then director of the Williams College Art Museum, went looking for spaces to exhibit contemporary art. John Barrett III, the former mayor of North Adams, suggested the vacant factory, and the idea of revitalizing the city by turning the old factory into an art museum began to hatch. Krens went on to become director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, so Joseph Thompson, his young colleague, took over, gathering the support and funding needed to open the museum in 1999.
With the $35 million state grant and additional private funds, the rambling old factory buildings were remodeled to showcase the work of contemporary artists who like the challenge of exhibiting their work in spaces that are as large as a football field. Nick Cave is one of those artists. Cave’s recent work, “Until,” is now on display in the museum’s largest room. Visitors enter the exhibit by walking through hundreds of circular foil shapes dangling from the ceiling. They then climb up ladders to an overhead platform constructed of millions of chandelier crystals and covered on top with bric-a-brac seemingly collected from a thousand basements and backyards. Black-faced lawn jockeys are wedged in between the other objects, asking visitors to consider the question that popped into Cave’s head one day—is there racism in heaven?
Over time, Thompson has wrestled with how to build and sustain a museum with such delightfully spacious exhibition halls in such a remote location. The museum’s provocative and lively exhibitions quickly made a splash among critics and attracted visitors from all over. But financial sustainability has been a challenge.
Renting out some buildings on MASS MoCA’s 26-building campus to a wide range of other businesses both diversified and stabilized the museum’s revenue. In order to build a more robust gate, MoCA expanded its mission to include performance art, music concerts, and festivals, attracting a steady stream of visitors even in off-peak seasons. The museum also built up an endowment and focused on developing high-profile exhibitions, such as Sol Lewitt’s famous wall-size drawing, that stay in place much longer.
All of these strategies proved effective in stabilizing and growing the museum. The number of visitors has doubled since the museum opened. In 2016, more than 160,000 people attended visual or performing art shows and festivals. Thompson expects the new expansion will attract an additional 20,000 visitors this year.
MIXED BAG FOR NORTH ADAMS
By most indicators, North Adams is a troubled community. It’s one of the poorest towns in the Commonwealth, with over 21 percent of the population living in poverty. The current unemployment rate is 6.6 percent, significantly higher than the state and national averages and fifth highest among all cities and towns in the state. Census estimates for 2016 put the population at 13,000 residents, down about a third from when Sprague closed its doors.
Still, there are some promising signs. Thompson says the hospitality industry is one area that has grown. “Fifteen years ago, there were 17 hotel rooms, and many of them were pretty rough. Today there are 185 and another 48 under construction,” he says.
One of the most successful ventures is Porches, a row of dilapidated row houses directly across from the museum that were remodeled to create hotel suites, providing upscale accommodations for out-of-town visitors to MASS MoCA as well as parents, alumni, and others visiting Williams College in nearby Williamstown.
The Tourists project is a similar initiative, an effort to remodel an old motel court and a nearby farmhouse and mill to create a multi-service recreational resort and spa that takes advantage of its natural setting along the Hoosic River. Greylock Works is yet another project transforming an old cotton mill into a boutique hotel, as well as space for events and artisanal food production.
Thompson says that the opening of Building 6 in combination with the recent expansion of the Clark Art Museum in nearby Williamstown is driving more people to not just visit but move to North Adams.
Brian Miksic is one of those people. He and his wife, Suzy Helme, moved to North Adams from New York City four years after MASS MoCA opened. Both have been actively involved in promoting the city and region ever since. Miksic, who works in information technology, has served on several civic and community boards. Helme works for the city’s tourism office.
Miksic says that he and Helme developed a list of qualities they wanted in a home town—small but not too small, with an ample supply of culture, colleges, and natural beauty. North Adams had it all. ”We probably wouldn’t have moved here if it wasn’t for MASS MoCA. We wouldn’t have come to some little town in some little corner in Massachusetts,” he says.
Stephen Sheppard, an economist at nearby Williams College, says that MASS MoCA has fallen short of its projected impact on job growth. For more than a decade, Sheppard has analyzed the impact of MASS MoCA and other cultural organizations on local economies. He says that the museum has stimulated development of 385 jobs to date. That’s about two-thirds of the 600 jobs initially projected by the museum founders. Of the 385, he says, about 274 are direct employment at the museum or in related sectors of the economy, such as the performing arts, restaurant, hospitality, and retail sectors. The remaining 111 jobs result from either indirect or induced effects in other sectors of the economy. Indirect effects reflect business-to-business spending, and induced effects are caused by local spending of employees.
Sheppard says the museum’s total impact on the economy is approximately $35 million per year. Of that amount, he says, $21 million is generated by direct impacts, and $14 million is generated by indirect and induced impacts.
Thompson says that the expanded gallery space, which opened at the end of May with another $25 million in state funds, has already boosted the number of direct jobs by adding to the museum payroll. MASS MoCA has significantly expanded its staff from about 100 to 150 total employees, including 120 full-time staff members and 25 to 35 permanent part-time staff, he says. As the Tourists and Greylock Works projects get underway, that will bring more construction, hospitality, culinary, and other jobs to the area, Thompson says. He estimates that in the next few years, the museum will far exceed the initial projection of stimulating 600 jobs.
GETTING PEOPLE TO STAY
One of the biggest challenges is getting visitors to MASS MoCA to spend money in the city center of North Adams, just a few blocks away from the museum.
Ralph Brill, owner of Brill Art Gallery, which is located in the Eclipse Mill, another renovated factory building just down the road from MASS MoCA, says the museum has inadvertently added to the woes of downtown stores by developing what amounts to an alternative business center. “If you’re a museum visitor or an employee in the Mass MoCA campus, you have all these choices. With a restaurant, two coffee shops, and a brewery on the campus, there is absolutely no reason to go downtown,” he says.
MASS MoCA leases its buildings from the city of North Adams at no cost and pays taxes on any commercial income it receives from renting space out. Brill says this arrangement allows the museum to rent out commercial space at lower rates than building owners downtown. “MoCA has sucked the life blood out of Main Street,” he says.
Sheppard agrees the downtown retail space is far more expensive than what’s available on the MoCA campus, but he questions why downtown landlords don’t respond to the competition by reducing their rents. “Don’t you think it makes more sense to get less money per month but at least rent the space?” he asks. He argues the rents, many of which are more than $1,000 per month, are disproportionately high compared to the price of housing stock in town.
Part of the problem with trying to lure museum visitors downtown is the original urban design of North Adams, says Sheppard. The factories were originally built along what is now Route 2 to keep traffic, factory smells, and byproducts away from the city’s main drag. But now that the site is a museum, it’s all too easy for people to view art exhibits, eat, and shop without leaving the campus. “In order for people to go downtown, they have to walk past their cars in the parking lot,” he says. “That, by the way, right there is the thing that’s very hard for Americans to do, then go under a viaduct and cross a busy street.”
Thompson admits that encouraging visitors to venture downtown has been a hard sell. The Barr foundation grant is supposed to help with that. It supports the North Adams Exchange Initiative, an initiative of the museum and the city that has installed pop-up retail and art exhibits in the empty store fronts and scheduled pop-up food vendors. An artsy light show was installed to display at sunset from the steeples of downtown churches, spelling out a poem by Thoreau in Morse code. Thompson says the museum has also cleaned up the area along the back of its parking lot, removing an old chain link fence and making the path to downtown more accessible and attractive.
But few of these initiatives seemed to be having much impact on the downtown of North Adams on a Sunday afternoon in June. Main Street itself was nearly empty, in stark contrast to the museum, which bustled with visitors a few blocks away. A pizza place, a café, and a dollar store were open. Other businesses in town, including banks, real estate firms, and insurance agencies, which don’t cater to tourists, were closed for the weekend. About half a dozen storefronts were vacant.
“You can’t blame it all on MoCA,” says Judy Grinnell, founder of the Hoosic River Revival, a community-based effort to revitalize the North Adams riverfront by redesigning the city’s flood control system, returning the river to a more natural state. “You’ve got Amazon and other retailers online and Walmart is a couple blocks away, so it’s complicated,” she says, adding the lack of traffic downtown has led to a downward cycle for Main Street, “You have to look at the quality of what is there. We don’t have stores that can pull in the tourists.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
On the north end of Main Street, the old Mohawk Cinema is open, but not for showing the latest Hollywood offerings. The iconic cinema, which has been dark since the 1980s, is open this weekend just to display plans for a future Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum. Spearheaded again by Thomas Krens, now retired from the Guggenheim, the privately-funded project also includes a “museum of time,” as well as a cafe, a retail store, and a boutique distillery. Supporters say it would add significantly to the region’s reputation as a corridor of cultural attractions and bring hundreds of thousands of visitors downtown. Krens and other museum backers have negotiated to locate the sprawling museum complex along the river in the Heritage State Park and in a vacant old building across the river.
The main room of the cinema, once packed with movie-goers, seems oddly quiet. A large model of the Empire State Building stands alone in the center of the cavernous space. Several large poster boards describing the proposed museum and displaying drawings of it are propped up on tables and chairs, highlighting the inchoate nature of Krens’s new project. In large letters across the top of one of the poster boards, Thompson is quoted as saying that a small portion of the population enjoys contemporary art, but everyone loves railroads.
Firefighter Pete Robare, who is on a detail to watch over the display, wholeheartedly agrees. A long-time resident, he has seen enough unlikely projects get off the ground to wave away the idea the railroad museum will be anything but a smashing success. “There’s a railroad museum in another part of the world and it’s one of the most visited places around,” he says. “Nobody thought Porches was going to make it either, but look at it now, it’s busy all the time.”
Hopeful as he is about the future of North Adams, Robare remembers brighter, if more raucous days, on Main Street. When Sprague was open, he says, “There were 26 barrooms here on this street. That tells you a lot.” After high school, Robare worked at Sprague along with most of his friends and neighbors. His father, who was also a firefighter, realized Sprague was in danger and encouraged his son to join the fire department. Not long after Robare was hired by the city, Sprague shuttered its doors. “People thought it was the end of the world,” he recalls.
While MASS MoCA can’t be expected to solve the complexity of all the city’s problems, Grinnell, Brill, and others believe that lawmakers have leaned too heavily on the museum as an economic driver. They say the level of unemployment and poverty in town call for a more wide-ranging proactive approach to support and retain basic services. “MASS MoCA is a catalyst for economic recovery, it’s not a savior,” says Grinnell.
“I love MASS MoCA,” says Brill, “I love the whole experience. But there’s a disconnect between what goes on inside the MASS MoCA campus and what happens outside. There are huge numbers of food deserts, unemployment, and opioid addiction in North Adams.”
Even maintaining basic medical services in North Adams in recent years has been a struggle. Three years ago, North Adams Regional Hospital went bankrupt, shutting its doors with three days’ notice, and laying off about 500 workers. Berkshire Medical Center (BMC) bought the property, and rehired over half of the workforce, opening the North Adams campus of BMC. The new facility has an emergency room and many diagnostic and outpatient surgical services, but the area lost all of its inpatient hospital beds, including the maternity ward. Maynard Seider, a retired professor from the city’s Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, says that more state funding should have been invested in retaining a full service community hospital.
“That’s not a big deal for many people, but if you’re poor and you don’t have access to a car and you have to travel down to Pittsfield or Albany to have a baby or visit your family member in the ICU, that’s a problem,” Seider says.
Keeping medical services in the North Berkshire area is “a very real concern,” says state Sen. Adam Hinds, who represents the city. “But it’s not an either-or. When it comes to making the decision of what the state is going to invest in, we are going to invest in what seems to be demonstrating the most promise.” MASS MoCa adds significantly to a growing network of cultural attractions supporting a wide variety of industries in the region, he says. “They have created the buzz—you see that in other new projects and new investments coming in from outside Massachusetts. Every project has a critical juncture and MASS MoCA has reached that juncture,” he says.
Alcombright, the North Adams mayor, sees the same transformation starting to take place. He says the town has been successful in attracting new businesses and investors, which is made easier through the presence of the museum and the prospect of future projects such as the model railroad museum complex, the Tourists resort and hotel, and Greylock Works. Krens has moved forward on plans for another cultural attraction, the Global Contemporary Art Museum, funded by international art collectors. As every small- and medium-sized business opens its doors, it attracts others, creating an incoming tide of new industry, jobs, and consumers. “We’re looking for companies that bring in seven jobs, 10 jobs,” says Alcombright.John Sprague, son of the founder of the Sprague Electric Company, says the jobs MoCA has brought to the area cannot possibly make up for the thousands that were lost and the ripple effect that loss has had on the economy over the past 30 years. Sprague, who worked first as research director for Sprague Electric before leading the company in the decade before it closed, says that no one entity can be expected to revitalize a region’s economy as modern manufacturers rely heavily on robotics and automation now. “Even if a company like Sprague were to open its doors in North Adams, it would bring 200 jobs to town, tops,” he says.
Like Alcombright, Sprague argues the only way to revive the city is to build a diverse mix of smaller entities that can operate in a remote location, such as publishing or customer service companies. “MASS MoCA is not enough for North Adams. It’s never been enough,” says Sprague. “But let’s face it, at this point, MASS MoCA is all we have.”