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Joseph C. Thompson.
Joseph C. Thompson.

Longtime MASS MoCA Director Joseph C. Thompson Steps Down

Joseph C. Thompson will step down as director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts after steering it for thirty-two years, the North Adams institution announced on Friday. With ambitious programming that made room for large-scale artworks as well as musical performances and other outdoor events, Thomson led MASS MoCA from its stumbling start to its current status as a major cultural destination in the Berkshires and the largest organization devoted to new art in the United States.

“After more than three decades as director, it is high time for me to step away from day-to-day management of the museum, focusing for the next year on transition planning, institutional advancement, and capacity-building,” Thompson said in a statement. His final day on the job will be October 29, with Tracy Moore, the deputy director and chief operating officer, taking over as interim director. Thompson will serve as special counsel to the board of trustees for twelve months following his departure. 

Like most museums, MASS MoCA is now reeling from the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. After incorporating new safety measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the center reopened in July along with the Clark Art Institute and the Norman Rockwell Museum. Officials at MASS MoCA told the New York Times that Thompson’s decision to step down is not related to a charge of vehicular homicide that the director faces after a 2018 incident involving the death of a motorcyclist, and to which Thompson pleads not guilty.

The idea to site a museum in a rambling campus of old industrial buildings in North Adams originated in 1986 with Thomas Krens, then director at the Williams College Museum of Art. Soon after the state government approved a $35 million grant for the project, Krens became director of New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Appointed MASS MoCA’s new director before it even opened, Thompson spent over ten years securing additional funding before the kunsthalle-style museum finally welcomed the public in 1999, with Robert Rauschenberg’s massive The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, 1981–98.

Under Thompson’s guidance, the museum has become known for fostering deep-rooted institutional relationships with leading contemporary artists, who are given a rare amount of curatorial and spatial freedom—even more so after a $65 million expansion, completed in 2017, that introduced evolving long-term exhibitions by Laurie Anderson, Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, and James Turrell, among others. 

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