PRINT May 1999

US News

Mass MoCA

As its official opening date approaches, it is difficult to know what to say about the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Conceived in 1986 as the world's largest space for the exhibition of large-scale contemporary works, the project languished for thirteen years as funds evaporated, organizers and contributors defected, and public attention turned to flamboyant, jewel-like art palaces in places like Los Angeles and Bilbao. Forced to redefine itself repeatedly in order to raise funds, Mass MOCA now locates its mission at the blurry intersection of new technology, performance, and cross-disciplinary experimentation. When the museum opens its doors on May 30, a wide variety of work will be on view, with an emphasis on large-scale installations. Important pieces by Joseph Beuys, Mario Merz, and Robert Rauschenberg are part of a group show; Tony Oursler contributes a work specially commissioned for this opening; an animation series presents images from Disney as well as from William Kentridge. A permanent sound installation by Christina Kubisch is already in place, and off-site, the museum has organized an exhibition of artists' billboards [see preview, p. 59]. “We have won hearts and minds, and sometimes that takes a little while,” said Joseph C. Thompson, the museum's director, referring to the decade-long struggle for financing. The new institution, however, has yet to prove that it can win the support of a broad public willing to travel for hours, and pay eight dollars, to be challenged by contemporary art.

The museum occupies a group of abandoned nineteenth-century factory buildings in North Adams, in the Berkshire Hills of northwestern Massachusetts. It is hours away from New York or Boston. The oldest buildings date from 1872, when the Arnold Print Works opened a plant at the center of town. The Sprague Electric Company occupied the site in the '40s and at its peak employed 4,000 workers—then about one-fifth of North Adams's population. Sprague closed in 1985, leaving behind the grim yet dignified assemblage of brick boxes.

Thomas Krens, now the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, was the first to propose a museum at the site. Plans stalled in 1991, when Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld froze the $35 million originally approved for the project. In 1995, after the size and scope of the museum were drastically reduced and $8 million in private donations had been raised, Weld relented and allocated $18.6 million to revive it.

Bruner/Cott and Associates, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, architecture firm with experience in mill preservation and reuse, has converted five of the factory buildings into nineteen galleries, some of them astonishingly vast. The industrial vocabulary of Mass MOCA's site has been left largely intact, with open beams overhead and the original wooden floors and brickwork exposed. “Ultimately our asset is inexpensive, beautiful space,” Mr. Thompson said.

The remainder of Mass MOCA's 220,000 square feet is devoted to fabrication shops, rehearsal studios, commercial spaces, and a 10,000-square-foot black-box theater. The Kleiser-Walczak Construction Co., a digital animation firm that creates special effects, has moved its headquarters to Mass MOCA from Hollywood, and the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, a local institution, will develop collaborative projects using the museum's theater.

It has long been hoped that the opening of Mass MoCA would awaken North Adams's moribund economy, and residents of the town, like many in the art community at large, remain cautiously optimistic about the museum's prospects.