A museum where a piano tuner tests the ceiling — #berkshireweekend

I can remember walking through the galleries after hours. Rauschenberg prints showed in one football-field-sized open room at a scale taller than I am — in my memory they feel like Washington Square Park or the Piazza dei Signori, kids playing in fountains, the quick wash of scenes someone might see walking through a city at dusk.

I didn’t know their history then, and I hadn’t yet started talking with artists and curators … they way we walk through these rooms now, as their shows come together, and they feel their way through the ideas in their work, the stories and lived experiences, the times imprinted as close as your skin, enough to stir a current in you half a lifetime later. But I was there. I was an intern in 1999, in the summer Mass MoCA opened.

Twenty five years is a long time in the life of a human and a city. Mass MoCA is reflecting this week on their past and future, and I’m curious to hear where they’ll come down. Local people have a lot of feeling about this place. Some of it goes deep. Some touches the city’s creative life, and some the city’s life before the museum, and both are still pulsing in our local ecosystems.

Visitors to the chalet sip drinks by the river as Oh Canada opens at Mass MoCA in 2012. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA
Photo by Tom Adams

Visitors to the chalet sip drinks by the river as Oh Canada opens at Mass MoCA in 2012. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA

I didn’t know North Adams when the mills were running at full speed, though I came in time to feel some tangible echoes. But I remember that summer in the museum’s first days. The staff were almost all working out of the second floor of the gatehouse, in a jumble of tables and stacks of books, ’all bunched in one long office room,’ I told a friend back then, ‘and the interns squeeze in wherever we fit. Enthusiastic, intelligent … 13 acres of creative space — gallery, theatre, movie house, dance floor, open artspace for local kids.’

And all bootstrapped. People often forget that now, I think, but I knew it even as a college kid. Bootstrapping originally meant to try something impossible, and it has come to mean making something out of nothing — and when I think back to that summer, both feel right. I remember the people who came together and the feel of the place they were making. I remember the air humming like the charge before a storm.

That opening surge had been a long time coming. It took 14 years for Joe Thompson and Jennifer Trainer and the community to scrape together the funds to open the first of the gallery spaces. And the energy sparked in them for me, even when I didn’t always see eye to eye with the art.

A horned motorcycle trailed the Fibonacci sequence, and the six canvases in the hall were painted a completely even fire engine red, without texture or variation. They felt like technical exercises to me, like a musician practicing arpeggios.

I can still remember talking with my room-mates about them and the ideas that seemed to underly minimalist art (at least from what the tour guides told me) — how can you have an artform where the artist explicitly never touches the work? The human, the sensual and the sensory are creation

And I still ask that question half the time. But I ask it remembering the fractal patterns of conversations and experiences this place has led me to. Back in that college summer I couldn’t have imagined walking into the glimmering maze of Nick Cave’s Until and listening to Benjamin Clementine singing barefoot at the piano.

People gather among the local restaurants, taco truck and microbrewery in the Mass MoCA courtyard at night.
Photo by Kate Abbott

People gather among the local restaurants, taco truck and microbrewery in the Mass MoCA courtyard at night.


Xu Bing's Phoenixes fly in Building 5 at Mass MoCA in 2013. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA
Xu Bing's Phoenixes / Mass MoCA

Xu Bing's Phoenixes fly in Building 5 at Mass MoCA in 2013. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA



Cy Gavin’s night painting of Bish Bash Falls glows in Lure of the Dark at Mass MoCA.

A closeup of the bright rooms in Izhar Patkin's, 'The Wandering Veil,' a work created in collaboration with the poet Agha Shahid Ali, at Mass MoCA in 2014.
Ishar Patkin / Mass MoCA

A closeup of the bright rooms in Izhar Patkin's, 'The Wandering Veil,' a work created in collaboration with the poet Agha Shahid Ali, at Mass MoCA in 2014. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA

More events coming up …

You can find more in the BTW arts and events calendar

Claude Monet, The Geese, 1874, oil on canvas. Clark Art Institute
Jun 14 2024 @ 10:30 am
Works on Paper invites artists of all experience and skill levels to work closely with thematic selections of drawings from the Clark’s collection.
Mass MoCA catches sunlight on a summer day.
Jun 14 2024 @ 11:00 am
Mass MoCA and the Williamstown Theatre Festival present The Plastic Bag Store, an immersive, multimedia experience by Brooklyn-based artist Robin Frohardt.
The full moon glimmers over the reflecting pool and Stone Hill at dusk at the Clark Art Institute. Press photo courtesy of the museum
Jun 14 2024 @ 7:30 pm
The Clark opens their season with a community-wide celebration and a first look at their major summer exhibition for Guillaume Lethière.

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.

If you’d like to see the website grow, you can join me for a few dollars a month, enough for a cup of coffee and a cider doughnut. Members get access to extra stories and multimedia, itineraries a bookmark tool. Let me know what you're looking for, and we’ll explore together.

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