• U.S.

Art: Going For Mass Appeal

4 minute read
Belinda Luscombe/North Adams

Part of Joseph Beuys’ Lightning with Stag in Its Glare is an 1,800-lb. structure that is suspended from the ceiling and just kisses the floor. Artist Lawrence Weiner chooses words, the color of the paint and the way the text should be painted on the wall, and has the gallery do the work. Ronald Kuivila’s Visitations is an audiotape of interviews, songs and the noises of a former factory. Robert Rauschenberg’s 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece is a work in progress that currently has 195 parts–some visual, some aural–and measures nearly 1,000 ft. in length. Let’s leave aside discussion of the value of these examples of contemporary art. Before people can judge them, they have to be seen or, as the artists would have it, experienced. But how to house such a disparate mix of hybrids?

Over the last decade, a spray of new museums of contemporary art has popped up to grapple with that challenge. Miami opened one in 1996, the same year Chicago expanded its version. Last year architect Will Bruder carved one out of a multiplex cinema in Scottsdale, Ariz., and MoCA Denver moved to a 10,000-sq.-ft. permanent home. Cincinnati recently announced that the dynamic female architect Zaha Hadid would design its contemporary arts center. And just last month the biggest of them all, Mass MoCA, opened in North Adams, Mass. Its name is doubly apt: housed in an abandoned factory that covers 13 acres (or about a third of the formerly industrial town), the museum has 19 commodious galleries. It’s huge. In fact, it has so much space that it raises money by renting out some of its 27 buildings to commercial tenants of a like mind, such as a computer-animation firm and the local newspaper.

Originally the brainchild of Thomas Krens, then head of the nearby Williams College Museum of Art and currently the expansion-minded director of the Guggenheim, Mass MoCA was supposed to be a big splashy gallery, similar in concept to the Guggenheim in Bilbao. The same architect, Frank Gehry, and other big names, worked on the initial plan. But in 1988 Krens moved to the Guggenheim, and the economic boom known as the “Massachusetts Miracle” evaporated, taking the funding with it. Joseph Thompson, Krens’ successor, was left holding the baby. He has proved a shrewd parent. Thompson and a local architectural firm, Bruner/Cott & Associates, scaled back the original grand scheme. As a result, they may have ended up with something more interesting.

“Look at these spaces,” says chief designer Simeon Bruner, marveling at the hulking, bricky, fortress-of-industry buildings. “What did we do to them? Nothing. We just cleaned them up a little.” It’s a likably egoless statement from an architect, and he’s right. The makers of Mass MoCA had sense enough to leave the buildings alone. Perhaps they should have held back more; the less renovated spaces are the most enticing.

Echoes of the site’s former uses–it was built in the 19th century for a textile printer and then became the home of an electric firm–ring through the place in deeper chords than the sound installation that mimics the tones of the old clock tower. One 18-ft.-high-ceilinged room was used to generate lightning to test the capacitors the electric firm made. Now video artist Tony Oursler has annexed that space for a talking-light-bulb piece. “We have yet to have an artist who comes here who doesn’t have a big idea,” says Thompson. “These buildings have a heft that invites large gestures.” It’s not just new projects. Rauschenberg chose to display his biggest work in a gallery at Mass MoCA that is about the size of a football field. Even in art, size matters.

Thompson says he wants to “erase the traditional line between the visual and performing arts.” To this end, Mass MoCA has a theater, rehearsal spaces, an outdoor cinema and what the center boasts is “two performance courtyards.” These are ordinary courtyards, enlivened by the buildings, elevated walkways and bridges that surround them. There’s something peculiarly exultant about watching a Los Lobos concert in an abandoned factory. That peculiarity is Mass MoCA’s chief joy.

Whether the museum will flourish is more up in the air than Beuys’ sculpture. Mass MoCA has to survive on a wee budget and attract more than seasonal tourists to the area. All this without a titanium-covered building or a huge permanent collection to marvel at. But the combination of this sprawling, roughhewn relic of an era of America’s past bristling with the newest in every type of art form is something almost equally worth seeing.

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