Heartened by the mantra, "Build it, and they will come," a lot of institutions are commissioning world-class architects to design new buildings to house their permanent collections and temporary exhibitions. MASS MoCA, the kunsthalle in North Adams, Mass., that is comprised of 26 converted industrial buildings, took another tack. This huge, bustling campus, a three-hour drive from both New York City and Boston, resembles the midwestern community featured in the fictional Field of Dreams rather than the spectacular, high-tech new museums in Bilbao, Cincinnati and Milwaukee, designed respectively by the likes of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava.
Slowly and methodically, Joe Thompson, MASS MoCA's founding director and a graduate of nearby Williams College, has guided the renovation of former factories and development of exhibition and performing arts programs so that attendance figures rival far fancier urban galleries. In the movie and novel upon which Field of Dreams was based -- and from which the "Build It" slogan comes -- a baseball diamond is built in the middle of a cornfield.
Similarly, in North Adams, in the middle of what had been a bleak, downtrodden town, an ambitious, lively, contemporary art facility was created. And the people just keep coming. Last month, tourists filled spaces large and small that featured a series of shows: photographs by Gregory Crewdson; "Yankee Remix," an exhibition of works by Ann Hamilton, Lorna Simpson, Huang Yong Ping and others; and Robert Wilson's acclaimed "14 Stations" along with charcoal drawings, artist-designed chairs and his video of Deafman's Glance. North Adams no longer feels like Williamstown's country bumpkin cousin.
PT: What's your next long-term installation at MASS MoCA?
JT: A project by Ann Hamilton opening Dec. 13, 2003, and staying on view for 10 months. She's been experimenting with paper dropping from pneumatic equipment. She installed a version at the Museum of Modern Art in Dublin several years ago, and another variant was exhibited at the Hirshhorn in Washington this past summer.
At MASS MoCA, she's working on a somewhat larger scale. There will be 40 paper-dropping machines installed in the rafters of our football field-sized gallery. About 8,000,000 pieces of vellum paper will drop like snow.
A series of speakers will be moving slowly through space as well. The speakers will project dialogue, bits of text, perhaps music. The space will be lit naturally, and the windows -- some 4,000 panes of glass -- will be covered with organza, in shades of pink, red, and flesh tones.
With her vast range of references, Ann Hamilton is a force to be reckoned with. Previously, we've shown Robert Rauschenberg, Tim Hawkinson and Robert Wilson in this huge space. It's tough to get large installations right. Sketching doesn't always help, and even models can leave one short. It requires a poetic leap for an artist to command and articulate a huge, empty space.
PT: As MASS MoCA approaches its fifth anniversary, can you say something about your back story?
JT: We started with 650,000 gross square feet in 26 buildings. Today we've renovated about 300,000 square feet in nine buildings. We now have under construction an additional 70,000 square feet, and we expect this phase will be completed next year.
MASS MoCA was first proposed in late 1986. The state legislature approved the project in 1988, and that's when I became director. But then the economy in Massachusetts -- and along with it, Governor Dukakis, our angel -- plummeted. We lost state funding in January 1999 -- the state was broke, and the culture wars were in full swing -- so we began to raise funds from private sources.
I broadened our program in 1992 to include performing arts events and the development of commercial space. Governor Weld gradually became a supporter of the enterprise, reversing his initial position, which was one of absolute opposition. We met a series of funding challenges he gave us. Against his first goal of $500,000, we raised $1,000,000. He next asked us to raise $2,000,000, and then $4,000,000.
Finally he agreed to match our eight with $18,000,000 of state funding. That all took from 1991 to 1995. Our David Byrne show and an installation by Mario Merz helped win Governor Weld over. He saw MASS MoCA as whimsical, quixotic but attainable.
This institution became the single largest environmental remediation project in Massachusetts. It took a year just to clean out the asbestos. During May 1999, we opened with 200,000 square feet and, as I like to say, we continue to inhabit the site, growing into it. Rather than being a fixed entity, MASS MoCA is more like an organism.
PT: What's your program?
JT: Obviously we do exhibitions. In the last few years, we've done about 40. We focus on contemporary art. We don't own art. We don't do permanent installations. We exhibit work by living artists, quite frequently younger and mid-career artists.
The untold story of MASS MoCA is the amount of new work created here on site. MASS MoCA is a veritable factory of new art. At least 48 visual art commissions were initiated over the course of the last five years. And an equal number of performing art commissions were created, or tweaked, or tech'd here, by artists ranging from Philip Glass to Shirin Neshat to Mabou Mines. Laurie Anderson brought her recent one-woman show here to try it on for size in front of a audience before the official tour. There's just a vast range of work that gets shaped or made here: people don't realize that. In fact, you could say our institutional DNA is all about new work.
But we also present pre-existing work. We are among one of the most ambitious presenters of performing arts in our region, staging some 80 performing arts events a year, ranging from complex theatrical
evenings to simple film and lectures. In October alone, we'll have Joan Baez in concert, Philadanco, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward discussing their work, and the Tiger Lillies, a rather strange and alluring trio from England.
As an exhibition venue and a performing arts venue, MASS MoCA expresses a similar esthetic. And we have the resources to develop all sorts of work and we're able to host artists in residence for extended periods. This allows for a kind of experimentation and project development that is rare today.
Finally, we're a major developer of commercial space, which is part and parcel of our economic redevelopment mission. Lots of arts projects want to foster and grow communities, but we're quite literal about it: we create jobs. Job creation is part of our core mission.
Right now we offer 60,000 square feet rented to commercial tenants. Among our tenants are publishing companies as well as law firms. Their rent makes a lot possible here. Soon, we'll be up to 130,000 square feet of commercial space. And this is important for many reasons. Our community revitalization project provides us with leverage and is a catalyst for state money.
Before MASS MoCA, North Adams had endured tremendous economic dislocation. Unemployment was over 20 percent. Sprague Electric Company, the previous occupant of our buildings from 1935-1985 (before that the property housed Arnold Print Works from 1862-1931) put 4,000 people out of work -- that's 4,400 out of a total population of about 18,000. Do the math: that amounts to about one out of four people in North Adams and the vicinity. Nearly every family faced unemployment. Before we opened, 80percent of the local storefronts were empty. Today, the ratio has been reversed. There now is about 80 percent occupancy.
That said, MASS MoCA and North Adams still have a long way to go. I've been at it for about 15 years, and that feels like about halfway to me. There still lots of space to inhabit. There are still too many people in North Adams who don't have decent jobs, or who live in intolerable conditions.
The museum doesn't have an endowment (so we didn't suffer losses from the downturn in the stock market!), and we run on ennervating cash flows. We need to double our commercial space under lease. We need to move from nail-biting start-up mode, to what I would call a second-stage venture. We hope to be here forever. This work is about endurance, and sustainability: it's not a sprint.
PT: What's been your biggest surprise?
JT: I come from the world of visual arts. I'm a visual arts person. When our performing arts program was added on, I thought of it as an adjunct to the museum program. But that's not true. We expend the same resources on performing arts as on visual arts, and we accrue huge benefits from this catholic approach.
MASS MoCA has about 125,000 to 130,000 visitors a year. If you compare that number with attendance at other major institutions that show contemporary art and don't have large permanent collections, we're up there with the museums of contemporary art in places like Houston, Miami, Boston, Cincinnati, and within hailing distance of L.A. and Chicago, and our population base and geographic location is not exactly metropolitan.
The Berkshires are a special place with institutions like Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow and the Clark Art Institute. To a large degree we're shirt-tailing on these wonderful cultural attractions; but we also have a really lively program that creates a weekly buzz.
The institution as well as the artists benefit from this. You can find a Robert Wilson in our galleries and on our stages. Bang on a Can performs an amazing series of summer concerts in our galleries. There is real fluidity here. Probably only six or seven institutions can offer this range: that's surprised me -- and delighted me -- the most. Plus the fact that we're still in business, and nearly five years old now! Sometimes I've wondered.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and other journals.