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MASS MoCA Prepares For Next Phase


The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams is embarking on its next expansion phase.

The $55 million project marks the third expansion phase since MASS MoCA opened its doors in 1999. Slated for renovation is 130,000 square feet of gallery space, a near doubling of the current available area. Museum director Joe Thompson says it will allow MASS MoCA to build upon the success of long-term, large scale exhibits like Anselm Kiefer and Sol LeWitt that involve many partners.

“Immersive, big, exciting installations,” Thompson explained. “The kind of work that simply can’t fit in conventional, urban settings and for which these big, broad, raw buildings that we’re lucky to have here at MASS MoCA are perfect.”

Work will also be done to reveal courtyards currently hidden from visitors, improve access to the bordering Hoosic River and make the entire 26-building, 16-acre campus more walkable. Here’s Thompson.

“It’s a place that rewards exploration and a little bit of bravery,” he said. “The buildings, the way they sit to one another with elevated walkways, you have to go up and down stairs and around. You really have to poke. Curiosity is well rewarded at MASS MoCA.”

Bathrooms will be added and the site’s electrical and water capacities, which are currently tapped out, will be upgraded. Thompson says a significant portion of the money will go toward maintenance to preserve the former Arnold Print Works and Sprague Electric campus that dates back to 1860 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The walls are patented with layers of paint, the windows don’t quite match and the columns are literally worn down from people’s hands and brushing past them,” Thompson pointed out. “You can feel time, labor and work. I think there’s probably a kind of nostalgia for this kind of place.”

The museum’s expansion is slated for $25.4 million as part of a capital facilities bill that recently passed the Massachusetts House and is on its way to the Senate. State Senator Ben Downing, a Democrat from Pittsfield, is the vice chair of theLegislature’s Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development. He says there is strong support for the MASS MoCA funding, as the remaining $30 million will be privately raised and that the state provided $35 million for the museum’s launch and initial expansion.

“Our colleagues in the Legislature look at the previous investments that have been made at MASS MoCA,” Downing said. “The commitment of the board of MASS MoCA and others to significantly raise funds to match portions of these funds and the position it puts the museum in to win contests for significant new installations, I think all put the institution in a strong position. They put us in a strong position to advocate for those funds.”

Thompson says on average MASS MoCA draws 130,000 people annually, a number that’s been on the rise. Citing economic studies, Thompson expects this latest expansion to attract an additional 65,000 visitors resulting in an $11 million impact on the local economy. Coupled with Williamstown’s Clark Art Institute’s expansion this summer and the region’s other art destinations, Thompson says he thinks out-of-town visitors will be forced into an overnight stay instead of just a day trip.

“There’ll be no way to take that all in in a day,” Thompson said. “The Clark itself will become a three, four or five hour visit. MASS MoCA, with LeWitt and Kiefer, is already getting hard to visit in three or four hours. With this project will become perhaps even a full day.”

Thompson says the whole project will take two- to two-and-a-half years. Barring any roadblocks in the state funding, he hopes work can start this fall.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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