How can a museum grow a creative ecosystem? — Part 2

Teenagers are gathering in the courtyard on a spring afternoon, talking in the sun. They are visiting museum in school groups, and some are artists here with their friends and family for the annual teen art invitational.

Watching them as she thinks through Mass MoCA’s past and future, Sue Killam, managing director for the performing arts and film, touches on horseshoe crabs. They are ancient creatures with abilities that can seem almost magical, with five eyes can see in the dark and in all directions, and they have lived on earth longer than Mount Greylock has existed. And they play a role in the life around them, whether or not their actions are visible on the surface.

In North Adams, she sees Mass MoCA acting like them in a way — like a keystone species — one organism that defines a whole ecosystem and keeps it healthy, she says, recalling them surrounded by whale song in an exhibit that filled the gallery behind her seven years ago — Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder — Chief Curator Denise Markonish’s 2017 collaboration here with NASA’s SETI Institute.

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

In the same year, Williams College economics professor Stephen Sheppard estimated the museum’s total economic impact in North Adams, both direct and indirect, had grown to $51 Million a year.

A keystone species is one that touches many lives, by influencing the systems that sustain them. In National Geographic’s words, “Without its keystone species, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether.”

Killam sees the museum shaping North Adams and shaping wider conversations in the Berkshires, conversations about the community and larger conversations, she says, the world needs to have.

“It’s so important for Mass MoCA to be here,” she said, “so other people can think creatively about what North Adams and the Berkshires can be.”

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

The diversity in a creative economy can make the museum’s impact hard to measure, she said. But Sheppard, who died earlier this year, has spent more than 10 years maping Mass MoCA’s influence.

He has studied the effects of cultural organizations on their local economies, and 10 years ago he was looking in depth to track the effect of a creative energy soaking through the community. He has also showed steady growth over the 10 years before that — in 2017 he saw more than three times the $16 Million a year impact he had estimated in 2007.

As he explained his studies in writing, and spoke of them in conversation in spring 2019, he saw the Berkshires moving from an economy of manufacturing things to an economy of making experiences.

Solid Sound, a music and arts festival curated by Wilco at Mass MoCA in North Adams.
Solid Sound / Mass MoCA

Solid Sound, a music and arts festival curated by Wilco at Mass MoCA in North Adams. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA

A museum acting as a generative force could encompass arts and performance, and bring direct resources for entrepreneurship and technology, and have an influence extending into community planning, education and housing, local food and farms and the outdoors.

Sheppard was looking at the impact of the museum’s visitors coming to town — and also at contractors like the team who are repairing the roof of Building 5 this month. He took into account tenants like the Berkshire Innovation Center opening an office in the Mass MoCA courtyard, and Mass MoCA programs like Assets 4 Artists offering entrepreneurial training for creative professionals.

He also estimated that the museum was creating, directly and indirectly, as many as half the number of jobs that Sprague had offered in 1986. The museum’s and the state study’s original projections, in studies from 1987 and 1989, suggested Mass MoCA would generate 600 full-time jobs, directly and indirectly — and by 2017, Sheppard estimated the museum was in tangibly generating some 586 jobs, some part-time.

He was trying to understand, he wrote, how many people have jobs in the community now that would not exist without Mass MoCA — people who work at the museum and in the businesses on its campus, and people who work jobs the museum has brought here or helped to sustain, and people whose work exists here because of the creative, entrepreneurial energy the museum has grown year-round.

‘It’s all of those pieces in a murmuration of impact — all of those component parts moving in a collective positive trajectory.’ — Ben Lamb, Mass MoCA board, former North Adams City Councilor

“Mass MoCA is a huge component of our local landscape, both physically and economically,” agreed Ben Lamb, a member of the Mass MoCA board, former North Adams City Councilor, MCLA alum and Vice President of Economic Development at 1Berkshire, the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.

They traced connections Mass MoCA has encouraged over time. Some have grown roots among museum staff, local artists and community partnerships. Luiza Folegatti, Brazilian artist and Studios at Mass MoCA Residency Coordinator, came to the museum for an artist residency and moved to North Adams.

She and Carolina Porras Monroy, Studios at Mass MoCA Residency Manager, have created the new Iris Artists Residency at Mass MoCA in partnership with the Berkshire Immigrants’ Center, and this summer and they are co-curating an exhibit with the first Iris artists at MCLA’s Gallery 51.

Artists in residence show their work in progress at Mass MoCA. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA
Mass MoCA

Artists in residence show their work in progress at Mass MoCA. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA

Lamb and Killam see wide and growing connections. Wilco bassist John Stiratt came to town for Solid Sound and opened the Tourists Welcome motel. Members of Bang on a Can ensemble have moved to North Adams. Grammy-winning ensemble Roomful of Teeth started here.

Berkshire Innovation Center has opened a northern center at Mass MoCA for training in technologies, as North Adams and the Berkshires are seeing a countywide expansion in programs that bring funding, training and support for local startup businesses — Lever Inc. and Entrepreneurship for All.

“It’s all of those pieces in a murmuration of impact,” Lamb said — “all of those component parts moving in a collective positive trajectory, doing their own thing … and working with partners.”

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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