Mass MoCA sees momentum through 25 years — Part 1

When Tom Bernard worked at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art 20 years ago, he wore his grandmother’s badge from Sprague Electric Co. clipped to his own.

She worked in the mill at the hub of the city from the 1920s to the 1980s, and when Sprague closed and left the town without an engine, some imagined the museum as a possible anchor for a new future.

“Mass MoCA was an idea that started when I was in high school,” he says. “My parents were among the people who wrote $100 checks on a promise.”

His family did not know what the museum would be, he said, but they believed it could be a force in revitalizing North Adams. He has gone on to serve two terms as mayor in his home city, before becoming director of Berkshire United Way, and looking across more than a quarter of a century, he considers how far the museum have come.

On May 25, Mass MoCA celebrates 25 years. In that time, the museum has won international recognition for art and performance and grown into the largest contemporary art museum in the country, and one of the largest in the world.

Wilco's Solid Sound festival takes over Mass MoCA and North Adams every two years in June.
Mass MoCA / Photo by Kaelan Burkett / Mass MoCA

Wilco's Solid Sound festival takes over Mass MoCA and North Adams every two years in June. Press photo courtesy of the museum

Visitors over the years — the museum now sees more than 245,000 a year — may remember the Solid Sound Festival, returning this summer, and Grammy-winning vocalist and composer Rhiannon Giddens singing at FreshGrass, filling the courtyard with the heartbeat of her voice.

They may remember the labyrinth of Nick Cave’s Until gleaming in a gallery the size of a football field. Xu Bing’s 100-foot-long Phoenixes have flown here. And Ishar Patkin’s translucent walls have held poems by National Book Awardwinning poet Agha Shahid Ali, honoring a warm friendship between an Israeli artist and a Muslim poet from Kashmir.

Under the leadership of founding director Joseph Thompson, the museum has grown from the ground up, renovating 100-year-old structures on the mill’s campus, from 200,000 square feet in five buildings in 1999 to 550,000 square feet in 17 buildings today.

Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson greets concert-goers heading to the field to see Beck at the museum, and the original upside-down trees show fall color below the clocktower in Natalie Jeremijenko’s Tree Logic. Press photos courtesy of the museum

And they have weathered a pandemic and a transition of leadership, as Kristy Edmunds came in 2021 from from UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance to take the reins. She had served at UCLA as the Executive and Artistic Director since 2011, and before that as Artistic Director for the Melbourne International Arts Festival, and as the inaugural Consulting Artistic Director for the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

And this spring, she has negotiated a strike that has ultimately led to increases in pay and benefits for the museum’s employees.

Over the past 20 years, as mills have closed in local economy that has relied on them for a century, towns and cities across the region have considered the idea that a healthy arts scene can help to revitalize downtowns and interact with and support creative entrepreneurs.

‘We worked so hard to get it going — and that was just the starting line.’ — Sue Killam

But in the 1980s and 1990s, starting a contemporary art museum in a mill city — as local press describes feeling at the time — took a leap of faith.

Sue Killam remembers the early years. As managing director for the performing arts and film she has worked with the museum since their opening summer in 1999. And well before then she knew the people working to make it happen.

Raising funds and bootstrapping took 14 years, she said — a generation of laying of groundwork and community support, even before the doors opened. Growing up in Williamstown, while her father taught at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (then North Adams State College), she saw the idea take shape.

She saw a commitment among Thompson and his team, she said, a kind of vision, risk-taking, willingness to do whatever needed — an energy and determination she admired.

The crowd waves and cheers around the outdoor stage at FreshGrass 2017. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA.

The crowd waves and cheers around the outdoor stage at FreshGrass 2017. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA.

“So many headlines said we weren’t going to make it,” she said.

According to local press, Thompson and his team forged through changes in leadership, promises of state funding made and withheld, as support from then-Governor Michael Dukakis turned to opposition from his succeeding Governor, William Weld.

Thompson and leaders of the original staff sometimes worked without salary in these early years, as state funding stuttered and stalled and people in the community — including Bernard’s family — stepped in to keep the project alive.

Killam volunteered, then consulted with Jennifer Trainer in development, and when a partnership with Jacob’s Pillow International Dance Festival convinced Thompson to bring in the performing arts in 1999, she took on that role.

International blues icon Taj Mahal will perform at FreshGrass 2022. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA
Taj Mahal

International blues icon Taj Mahal will perform at FreshGrass 2022. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA

“I wanted it to succeed so badly,” Killam said. “That hasn’t changed.”

She remembers the opening day, 10,000 people coming to see the first nascent shows in the first renovated galleries. She remembers the opening summer, when most of the museum staff worked from the second floor of the gatehouse, when the internet was a skeleton scaffolding and the staff wrote membership letters on an electric typewriter.

“We worked so hard to get it going,” she said — “and that was just the starting line.”

Bernard remembers those years from many perspectives. Executive director of Berkshire United Way, he is a North Adams native, a Williams alum and former mayor of the city from 2018 to 2022.

(Today North Adams Mayor Jennifer Macksey, now in her second term, serves as a member of the Mass MoCA Cultural Development Commission, though she did not return a request for an interview before press time.)

He remembers 1986, and the earthquake shock to the community when Sprague Electric Co. closed its doors.

Growing up in North Adams at the end of the Sprague era, he would see the shift change downtown at the end of the day. On holiday mornings, his mother would get Neville’s Doughnuts — when they were open from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. as the night shift ended and the day shift began.

North Adams had become a Sprague company town since the 1920s. At its height, the mill employed 4000 people in the 1960s, in a city of about 18,000, and through shakeups they continued to employ 2000 from 1969 into the 1980s and 1200 by 1986. People worked with their neighbors and live next door to their colleagues.

Mass MoCA catches sunlight on a summer day.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Mass MoCA catches sunlight on a summer day.

In 1986, the company closed down their North Adams operations abruptly and with very little warning — a move that shut down the community center and devastated the local economy. Local people carry that history, that trauma, that memory, Bernard said.

And into this space, Tom Krens, then the director of the Williams College Museum of Art, suggested a modern art museum.

“I would say there were people who wholly embraced it, people who were anxious, hopeful, skeptical,” Bernard said.

A woman lifts a child in a courtyard full of people listening to live music at FreshGrass. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA

A woman lifts a child in a courtyard full of people listening to live music at FreshGrass. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA

Sometimes they were the same person, he said — sometimes they still are. He has felt at times a longer standing tension with the local community, partly because the company town is the model they know, and they wanted it to go on.

Some saw the museum as an energizing force in an evolving local economy. Some wanted the kind of security that had come from one central employer and expressed frustration when they did not see it emerge quickly.

“I always wonder how much of that we oversold in the creation of Mass MoCA,” he said, “and how much people decided that was the museum’s purpose — was it a claim we could never live up to, or was it wishful thinking, magical thinking, from people in the community?”

‘I would say there were people who wholly embraced it, people who were anxious, hopeful, skeptical.’ — former North Adams mayor Tom Bernard

The idea a museum could replace the economic heart of the city merits some skepticism, he said. It also merits a close look.

In the aftermath of Sprague, some in the community looked to a new art museum as a creative anchor. The vision of a creative economy has always looked year-round, Bernard said. The idea has never relied solely on tourism, and it has always been spread out — not one business employing 3000 people, but 30 businesses employing 100 people, or 300 employing 10.

Mass MoCA was never going to re-create the model of one company directly offering 1,000 jobs, he said — and for a reason. That model has challenges, and the city has seen them clearly in action. When the whole community revolves around one center point, and that center point vanishes, it is hard for the city to recover.

“Diversifying the economy is the way to create sustainable growth in the longterm,” he said.

This story first ran in the Hill Country Observer in May 2024 — my thanks to editor Fred Daley.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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