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MASS MoCA's Building 6 Draws A Crowd

MASS MoCA Building 6
JD Allen

Mass MoCA doubled in size on Sunday with the opening of Building 6. WAMC’s Berkshire Bureau Chief JD Allen was one of thousands of people in North Adams, Massachusetts.

There were wall-to-wall people in North Adams Sunday — flooding hallways, the exhibits, and the outside food vendors, where they were dancing and having a good time.

The third phase of Mass MoCA’s development tacks on 130,000 square feet of interior renovations to the contemporary art museum’s 19th-century mill buildings.

Building 6 houses long-term exhibits including a labyrinth by Robert Rauschenberg, a light show by James Turrell and many others.

But opening day included something special. There were pop-up performances like Laurie Anderson’s Sol Lewitt-inspired music played by the Amherst String Quartet, Williams College professor Sandra Burton choreographing “Soundsuit,” and rock group CAKE.

Director Joe Thompson says roughly 6,000 people checked in to the museum – not counting those who went to see CAKE; it was the biggest single-day concert MassMoCA has ever had.

“It’s fun to come to work at 9:30 on a Sunday morning and see about 25 hundred people lined up waiting to get in. It’s not bad,” Thompson said.

Not a lot of people can say they enjoy coming to work on Sunday.

“I do! Particularly lately. If there’s a crowd like there is here today… We learn one thing, we opened with a marching band, a great band called Brooklyn United. And I would just say this to anybody who ever has to organize an event: If you don’t know what to do, get a marching band.”

It really brings a little bit of fanfare to the event.

“It drew—yeah, we had this issue. People—our members showed up early and got to go in through—got to go into the museum at 10 o’clock, and we had this challenge of getting people out of the building. There’s tons of art in there, really, really beautiful art. But we needed to get people outside. Governor Jane Swift was giving remarks, and Mayor Alcombright and Hans Morris,   the chairman of our board, so the question arose, how do we get people out of that really, really compelling group of artists? A marching band will do it every time.”

And there are a lot of new pieces of art in there, but what are some of your highlights, some of your favorites?

“You know what I like about it is, they’re all deep dives, in one way or the other. James Terrell has landed, in effect, a defacto retrospective of his work. Nine works, one from each decade of the six decades that he’s been active, one of every kind of work. That’s a rare, rare thing. He makes works that require vast amounts of time and space. We’re able to give him that and he made great advantage of it. But all of Laurie Anderson, who just walked by, will be with us here for fifteen years making work. Jenny Pulitzer has a beautiful set of spaces that she’ll be unfolding her work, both retrospectively and new projects she’s working on… The thing about this new wing of MASS MoCA is it’ll be like the, you know, the center tent in a three-ring circus. Something that’s very powerful, affecting, super, super high quality… Around which, you know, a three-ring circus of changing exhibitions can rotate like electrons around a proton.”

Mass MoCA Director Joe Thompson may be on to something about how draw a crowd. And there was a crowd.

Street traffic was backed up and nearly all of the parking spots in lots and on the street were taken. People would head out from the museum to their cars, find themselves blocked in by double-parkers and head back for dinner. 

Mayor Richard Alcombright, who also enjoyed the day’s festivities, says overcrowding is the least of the city’s concerns.

“Just real exciting times, I mean think about the city of North Adams will be hosting the largest museum of contemporary art in the county. I don’t know where that puts us in the world, but we are probably one of the top three in the world. We’re just so excited. Joe Thompson, in this team, has done a fabulous job at getting this thing ready. The schedule is saying they were going to open that new space, fully programmed, by the end of May. I think a lot of us kind of rolled our eyes when we saw the space and saw the needs. But it’s done. We’re looking forward to some great times this year with MASS MoCA,” Alcombright says.

Any concerns about congestion?

“You know what, I hope—to me, that would be a good problem to have. And so, you know, if we have a little bit of slowdown in the community because there’s traffic, you know, we’ll deal with that. We haven’t had any issues with when the Wilco or the Fresh Grass concerts come, and we have 8,000 people in the city. We managed to deal with that just fine, so I don’t think that this is going to be problematic in that sense, but like I said, what a wonderful problem to have. I would love to be dealing with too many people in the city. You know, in that sense. I’m sure we’ll handle it.”

Lodging and hotel accommodations through The Williams Inn, The Porches Inn at MASS MoCA and a newly opened hotel called Tourists charged a discounted rate for museumgoers.

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