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A Look Inside MASS MoCA As It Reopens From COVID Shutdown

After months of closure, North Adams, Massachusetts art museum MASS MoCA is reopening its doors to visitors Saturday.

In this dismal year of disease and economic depression, MASS MoCA has been hit particularly hard. When it was shuttered in March, three-quarters of its 165-person staff was laid off.

Now, after receiving the go-ahead to reopen from Governor Charlie Baker, workers are returning to the sprawling campus of what was once the Sprague Electric Company to create a safe environment for the 160,000 annual visitors to experience art. Those alterations will be immediately apparent to patrons when they see the museum’s new, COVID-era incarnation.

“Well, all of us in masks, and their first experience of being welcomed at MASS MoCA will start outside, which, unless you’re coming for a festival here at MASS MoCA, is not typical," said Deputy Director Tracy Moore. “So our entire box office, visitor engagement, visitor experience team starts outside, greeting people, reminding them of the masking, social distancing protocols, scanning their ticket that they bought in advance online, and then welcoming them into the building.”

Inside the massive complex, the museum has installed new safety measures, including over a hundred hand sanitizer dispensers designed by its in-house team. In other spaces, windows will remain open to keep the museum’s airflow fresh.

“We have certain areas that are entrance only, exit only, and one ways, and we also have messaging throughout the building – either signage or dots on the floor – to remind people about 6 feet, social distancing, stay with your group," explained Moore. "So it’s a medley of tools and techniques that we’re using to help guide people’s visit, but what was important to us is to still really leave places to wander where people can make their own choices about where to move, what to look at, how much time to spend, and we have a whole team of people populating the building too to help our visitors find their way and answer questions about the artwork.”

“Unlike other museums, our indoor galleries at MASS MoCA are measured by the acre," said Director of Communications Jodi Joseph. “For people who maybe have never been to MASS MoCA, there’s 250,000 square feet of galleries in addition to outdoor spaces here that make this a bit of an unusual museum experience. And once you’re inside the museum through one of our pinch points – which we’ve addressed, as Tracy mentioned, by moving the lobby experience to the outside – then there’s just an abundance of space as well as new art in the galleries.”

As an example, Joseph highlighted a new exhibition in one of the museum’s ground floor galleries filled with towering sculptures shaped like melting ice caps and violent tornados.

“Not a lot for safety protocols in this gallery, which is almost three stories high," she told WAMC. "We call it the tall gallery, which right now features the art of Blane De St. Croix. He’s a bit of a climate warrior and an artist, so he’s created an exhibition called ‘How To Move A Landscape’ which is reflecting largely on the changes in the arctic.”

The football field-sized Building 5 – one of MASS MoCA’s largest spaces – overlooks a courtyard where the museum hosts some performing arts events. Joseph says performances will also recommence – starting with a private event Saturday night – with their own set of new safety protocols.

“We’re going to lift up that door and it will become a stage for bands who will seemingly float about a story and a half higher than the audience who will be on the pavement down below in one of our concert courtyards where we can typically, during a music festival, fit 4,000 visitors, will now be spaced to accommodate 100 people,” she said.

Moore says MASS MoCA has arrangements in place if COVID-19 pops up at the museum.

“We’ll be following the guidelines of the CDC and the health department and the state of Massachusetts to enact contact tracing, and then depending on the level of exposure, and the nature of the circumstance, there’s a whole set of then reactions and actions that we would go into as an institution with the health department’s assistance if that was required to isolate staff, contact visitors, whatever the circumstance called for,” said the deputy director.

As the museum returns to life amid the chaos of 2020, Joseph says it aspires to serve its patrons now more than ever.

“We really hope that coming to MASS MoCA continues to be a place where you can let the cares of the world fly away when you walk through the door and just find a tremendous moment to be with art and engage with art and hopefully that will help as it always has just take us to the next plane, or give us a moment to reflect on what we’ve all just experienced individually and collectively over the last couple months,” she told WAMC.

Other Berkshire museums like the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown will follow MASS MoCA and reopen on Sunday.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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