Mass MoCA: Creativity at Huge Scale (Hope it Works)

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This weekend I saw two breathtaking, ambitious, large scale projects that captivated me: The new Sawyer Library at Williams College, and the Mass MoCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) indoor/outdoor museum in North Adams, Massachusetts.

The library, designed by the same people who design Apple stores, cost $86 million, and is a stunning work of architecture, encasing an old historic building in a new airy glass wood and metal structure with all the latest amenities. Lucky kids to be able to study there.

The museum (background on Wikipedia) is the true gem of this whole area. I almost didn’t go to because it was a ten minute drive out of my way. I’m so glad I did – It is clearly a product of passion, vision and many lifetime commitments (plus over $50 million in state plus private funds, with another $60 million is on its way to make Mass MoCA the largest contemporary art museum in the U.S.)

Think about that – the largest contemporary art museum in the U.S., in North Adams Mass, two-plus hours from the nearest big cities (NYC and Boston).  What an ambitious thing to try to do in the shell of an old industrial textile mill town. And what a fantastic backdrop for showing off large scale artwork.

You arrive at a huge campus of old brick mill buildings with an artsy feel, but with little indication that inside is a creative explosion.

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One whole building, for example, is permanently dedicated to large scale wall paintings by Sol DeWitt. The contrast of his art against huge empty rooms made of brick and timber is stunning.

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Several other buildings, all connected by walkways, house a variety of creative exhibits and projects, which all seem to share the ambition that only having an extremely large empty canvas can stoke.

The most dramatic example is a 5 foot story steam boiler tower that used to provide power to the whole complex, and was given over to a single artist to remake as an outdoor sculpture and memorial to the machine age. (The sixteen acre Mass MoCA complex was a print and textile mill from 1860 to 1942, and an electronics research and manufacturing site from 1942 to 1985).

I walked through the boiler building and up the stairs in the light rain which was dripping everywhere around the pipes, and pooling on the floor – post apocalyptic amidst the massive scale of steel and iron. At the top, the artist has mounted an Airstream trailer chock-full of knobs and dials, valve indicators, and other relics of the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

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A third huge building houses an entire wall of paintings/sculptures by Anselm Kiefer that depict submarines sinking in ocean battlefields, presumably during WWII – a memorial to a Russian writer/philosopher who believed that there is a decisive naval battle every 317 years.

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Wow. This is Smithsonian scale stuff, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. And that’s the question mark… can it survive long-term?

Mass MoCA is clearly the product of a gusher of economic development money plus private philanthropy, a hail-mary attempt to revitalize the hollowed out manufacturing community of North Adams.

The place did seem to have a pulse even on a slow Monday in September (apparently the winter is really dead), in contrast to other large-scale inorganic tourist magnets, like Steamtown in Scranton Pennsylvania, which is totally DOA. And Mass MoCA has been around for seventeen years, since opening in 1999.

On the other hand, you still get the feeling the jury is still out. The Mass MoCA complex doesn’t seem very connected to the rest of the town at all, which is full of social services agencies and the signs of a community that has given up, or has been given up on.

Who knows how this will play out, but go see Mass MoCA if you’re anywhere nearby. Its well worth even a long drive out-of-the-way.

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