15 Years Since Launch, MASS MoCA Still Expanding

Aug 25, 2014

An aerial view of the MASS MoCA campus in North Adams, Mass
Credit MASS MoCA

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams has received the state support it needs for a major expansion.

The $25 million earmark was part of a capital bond bill totaling more than $1 billion signed by Governor Deval Patrick in early August. The expansion, the third since MASS MoCA opened in 1999, includes renovating 130,000 square feet of gallery space, a near doubling of its current galleries, according to director Joseph Thompson.

“That’s a huge amount of room to invite artists to come make new work,” Thompson said. “We still have a lot of work to do to truly grow into that. On the performing arts side, this new expansion will only add really great things like better green rooms and workshop spaces so that we can make new work and have the right kind of tooling spaces to do that.”

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the museum’s 26-building home dates back to 1860. It used to house Arnold Print Works and Sprague Electric, an industrial past that lives on in the walls, floors and tunnels. The $55 million project includes upgrades to the site’s water and electric capabilities and a facelift for its 16-acre campus and is expected to take two and a half years.

State Senator Ben Downing, a Democrat from Pittsfield, is the vice chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development. In drumming up support for the funding this session, he said a key factor was that the remaining $30 million will be privately raised. He added lawmakers see MoCA’s success since 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 yearly attendance has grown from 40,000 in 1999 to an average of 120,000. In 2013, a record 162,000 people visited. Recognized for its sprawling industrial campus, emphasis on performing arts and burgeoning large-scale exhibits, the museum is also unique because of its roots. Thompson says it opened with no cash reserves, endowments or lines of credit as it sought to anchor a North Adams revitalization that was years in the making.

“We had to pay this week’s bills with this week’s income,” Thompson said. “That’s no formula for building a robust museum or performing arts facility, I can tell you that. When you write the recipe for how to do it, I would not suggest that.”

The risk paid off through leasing more commercial space, setting up a building fund and a growing endowment all while expanding galleries and filling them with new artistic work. Thompson expects this latest expansion could bring in 65,000 additional annual visitors. Coupled with The Clark Art Institute’s recently completed renovation and the other artistic draws of the northern Berkshires, he says a longer visitor experience will change a fundamental component of tourism.

“Going from a daytrip to an overnight is the key ingredient to reaping really significant economic impact and returns from tourism,” said Thompson.

Initial cleanup and demolition work could begin this fall as MASS MoCA has already started its campaign to cover the project’s cost. With four more buildings to renovate and an entire campus to fill, if you think this is it for MASS MoCA, Thompson says you’re wrong.

“This place is decades from being finished,” said Thompson.